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Susan Collins

Responsibly Reporting Suspicious Activity
By Senator Susan Collins
Apr 25, 2009 - 9:29:04 AM

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An alert citizenry is one of our best defenses against terrorist attacks. Signs on the New York City subway system read "If You See Something, Say Something." In Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol Police ask those who work on Capitol Hill to pay close attention to their environment to "help be the eyes and ears with our local law enforcement." Regular announcements in airports and train stations across the country encourage travelers to report unattended baggage.

Our nation's intelligence gathering capabilities have improved significantly since September 11, 2001. The Collins-Lieberman Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act resulted in improved coordination among agencies to better enable us to detect and thwart terrorist attacks. But despite these improvements, the terrorist threats to our nation are ever-present and evolving. Keeping our homeland safe depends on more than our intelligence and law enforcement community; it also depends on vigilant and watchful citizens.

It is because an alert citizenry is so critical that Senator Joe Lieberman and I recently introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate that would encourage individuals to report suspicious activity to appropriate officials without the fear of being sued. A similar bill has also been introduced in the House of Representatives. Our legislation is simple: it would protect individuals from lawsuits when they, in good faith, report suspicious behavior that may reflect terrorist activity. This protection would not apply to individuals who knowingly make false statements. Our laws and legal system must encourage, not discourage, citizens to be the eyes and ears that are so helpful to our law enforcement and intelligence communities.

We were successful in including similar language in the 2007 homeland security law to protect citizens who reported threats to the nation's transportation systems. It is particularly imperative that citizens be watchful and report suspicious behavior in the area of mass transportation where there is the potential for mass casualties, where vehicles and aircraft can be used as weapons, and where there is only a brief period of time for assessing and reacting to threats.

Earlier this year, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held hearings on the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Many of the Committee's witnesses during these hearings, including New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, endorsed the idea of expanding the 2007 law beyond the transportation sector. Commissioner Kelly testified that the 2007 law "made eminently good sense" and recommended "that it be expanded [to other sectors] if at all possible."

It should be common sense that when someone sees suspicious activities that he or she reports it to the authorities. Unfortunately, some have used the legal system to deter this from occurring. For example, two years ago, a group of airline passengers reported suspicious activity they thought represented a terrorist threat. Six Islamic clerics had moved out of their assigned seats and had requested, but apparently were not using, seat belt extenders that could possibly double as weapons. The airline decided to remove these individuals from the plane for questioning. The result was that the clerics sued those passengers, the pilot, and the airport. This case highlighted the fact that plaintiffs can misuse our legal system to chill the willingness of average citizens to come forward in good faith to report possible dangers. The very existence of this lawsuit clearly illustrates how wrong it is to allow private citizens to be intimidated into silence by threat of litigation, particularly when the eyes and ears of private citizen are so critical to our homeland security.

The message that our legislation conveys to the American public is, "If You See Something, Don't Be Afraid to Say Something." Our nation's homeland security depends on it.

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