Invading Iraq or silencing Syria won't put an end to terrorism, but according to an influential retired U.S. Army general, figuring out how to effectively disrupt the communications of extremist factions could.
Speaking to an audience of security professionals on Wednesday, Barry McCaffrey, a security expert who advises Congress, said that winning against Saddam Hussein will be relatively easy. Protecting civil rights while battling terror will be harder
McCaffrey, a highly decorated combat veteran, told attendees at the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) annual conference that the government's ability to protect the country is "only is good as the technology that backs it up."
McCaffrey said the United States' technologically advanced military could oust Hussein in three weeks, and a battle is inevitable. But removing dictators only goes so far, McCaffrey said, because most radicals aren't fighting for a country but an ideology.
Intercepting communications between the international pockets of zealots is a more significant weapon in battling terror, he said.
However, the government's initial attempts at monitoring e-mail and other electronic communications has only succeeded in "terrorizing law enforcement," McCaffrey said.
The government's current snooping system -- known as Carnivore -- makes it too easy to "enable the reading of all e-mails with only a warrant," McCaffrey said. This indiscriminate access makes it difficult for local law enforcement to find useful evidence in a sea of data.
Still, McCaffrey said the "electronic intercept of communications and satellite surveillance systems are a huge lever in battling the threat" of terrorism. He expects that "technology will be a big part of controlling who comes into the U.S."
But the general cautioned against creating a police state in which spying on citizens goes unchecked.
"We have to devise security methods that protect the Bill of Rights and allow free movement of individuals."
McCaffrey said the new Office of Homeland Security should be responsible for coordinating all government agencies' electronic sniffing efforts.
Kelly J. Kuchta, a cybersecurity expert who is chairman of ASIS' information technology security council, said private security firms have become more willing to work with law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. He said more companies are sharing information about cyberattacks with the FBI as part of InfraGard, a cooperative program between the public and private sectors.
While there has not been a significant terrorist attack on the U.S. technology backbone so far, Kuchta said security professionals are on the lookout. They worry that a virtual attack could coincide with another real-world one.
At 8:46 a.m., McCaffrey paused during his speech for a moment of silence to honor the victims of last year's terrorist attacks, including the 35 security professionals who perished at the World Trade Center.
McCaffrey said the United States is in a "permanent state of threat," and needs to work as part of an international effort to fight the poverty that contributes to radical belief systems.
"We need to give them something to live for, instead of a cause to die for."