When Our Protectors Betray Us

By Dan Cadman on August 9, 2016

A friend sent me the online version of Police Magazine containing an article about Nicholas Young, the District of Columbia Metro Transit police officer recently arrested by the FBI and charged with material support of a terrorist organization (Islamic State).

I had seen an earlier report on the arrest from a different media source, and had also heard journalists on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm show mention that this is the first time a U.S. law enforcement officer has been charged with such an offense.

It may be the first time for U.S. law enforcement, but it has happened before with the military: readers will certain recall the horrific murders committed by Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood. Hasan is not the only active duty or discharged military veteran who has become involved with terrorist organizations. Before him, there was Ali Mohamed, an al Qaeda double agent.

Still, the idea of the police, who are our first responders in the event of an attack, potentially being suborned into becoming the human weapons for an attack is a sobering one. It has happened with shocking regularity in Afghanistan and Iraq, where jihadists have routinely infiltrated the ranks and then turned on their fellow police officers – or, just as frequently, their ostensible American or other NATO allies. In Afghanistan, it has become such a regular occurrence that observers refer to them as "green on blue attacks".

Though the Metro police officer arrested last week is native-born, his case got me pondering what this country would do if would-be jihadists start taking the more strategic path of infiltrating our law enforcement agencies, instead of choosing the ill-planned, quick-and-dirty forms of attack by gun or knife.

Children born in this country to immigrant parents, or who arrive at a relatively young age and naturalize, are the kind of recruits many law enforcement agencies look for in their search to arrive at the magic formula of diversity and multilingualism. But they will also be exactly the kind of persons that Islamic State would try to recruit and, however brutal they are globally (including especially places under their direct control), they have shown a particular genius at using technology and social media to radicalize and recruit.

In fitness tests and background investigations that precede hiring police, the question is always one of trying to figure out what's in their heads, and how well and faithfully they can discharge their duties. But with immigrants and children of immigrants, there is also the question of how comfortable and assimilated to our cultural norms they are – never an easy thing to discern, but particularly hard if they have been groomed from the start to do nothing to trigger suspicion.

Polygraph tests can be helpful, but not every agency conducts polygraphs of its employees, and in any case they are not always a sure bet, since they rely in some measure on feelings of guilt or conscience to trigger the involuntary physiological changes it records such as pulse and breathing rate, perspiration to establish when a person is lying or concealing something. In some cultures, though, guilt doesn't figure as prominently as it does in western civilization. Margaret Nydell in her excellent book, "Understanding Arabs", discusses the fact that Arabic culture focuses more on the notion of "shame" which is external and triggered by how one is perceived, often meaning whether or not one is known or believed by others to have done something considered shameful. Thus the polygrapher may or may not be able to detect instances of infiltration by a die-hard Islamist who believes in the righteousness of his cause, including the religious right to lie to unbelievers to further his faith ("taqqiya"), and who therefore feels no sense of either guilt or shame, and who may be confident enough in himself to not fear being unmasked. Under such circumstances, the physiological changes may not occur or be so diffused as to render it impossible for the polygrapher to conclude the subject is lying.

The fallibility of polygraphs brings to mind the recent case of the FBI employee caught spying for the People's Republic of China (PRC). "Joey" Kun Shan Chun arrived in the United States as a small child, naturalized at an early age. Despite all outward appearances of assimilation into American culture and values, Chun, who could hardly have remembered his original homeland, was nonetheless willing to sell secrets to the PRC. It should be noted that the FBI routinely polygraphs its employees and conducts background reinvestigations on a routine basis; presumably it did so in Chun's case. Yet he worked for the FBI for nearly 20 years as an electronics technician and maintained a top secret clearance.

Chun's case is unfortunate, but how much worse would it be if instead of a hostile foreign intelligence service, it was an employee who had been in the service and pay of Islamic State? Think what such a person could do for instance, if he and other cohorts infiltrated the ranks of the New York City or Los Angeles police departments?

I don't suggest that I have any ready answers for my concerns about the possibility of infiltration, and I don't by any means suggest that only immigrants and children of immigrants are susceptible – certainly the evidence of the native-born Metro police officer proves otherwise – but honesty requires us to acknowledge that assimilation (or the failure to assimilate) looms as a significant factor where immigration is concerned, in ways that don't surface for others.