By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What Romney said

Thanks to Media Nation reader SCO, I was able to find a video of Gov. Mitt Romney’s remarks on wiretapping mosques, a statement that got him into trouble last week when his words were reported by the Boston Globe. I captured the audio to my Mac using WireTap (weirdly appropriate, no?), copied it to iTunes, converted it to an AAC file and moved it to my iPod. (Whew!) I listened on my way to work this morning, and identified a five-minute segment that goes to the heart of the matter.

The Globe article, by Scott Helman, placed Romney’s words in their proper context. Hearing the whole thing doesn’t make the governor look any better (or worse). Still, a fuller explication does reveal more about Romney’s thinking, and is thus worth a look.

Romney began by attempting to draw an analogy between the smaller/ faster/ more-nimble ethos embraced by the business world in recent years and how the struggle against terrorism ought to be pursued. He managed to work in word of praise for the war in Iraq, calling it part of a necessary “offensive” strategy against terror. And he addressed the futility of local efforts such as trying to defend, say, every bridge in the state, noting that even if it were possible to station a police cruiser at each one, there would be no way of knowing whether any particular vehicle represented a threat.

He then said this:

ROMNEY: In my opinion, based upon the work that I’ve done, it’s virtually impossible to have a homeland-security system based upon the principle only of protecting key assets and response. The key to a multilayered strategy begins with effective prevention. And for me, prevention begins with intelligence and counter-terrorist activity. And if you look back, … of all those billions that went out to the states, how much got spent in that activity, it would be a very, very small portion, if any, in many, many states. And as a nation, I think our number in that regard. How much more are we spending in domestic intelligence and domestic counter-terrorism relative to what we’re spending on protection and response? And I think the number would be very, very small indeed.

What do I mean? … Domestic intelligence – you know, I’m talking about monitoring people who come here from foreign countries that are terrorist-sponsored countries, individuals that may have been taught at places where terrorist training is going on. Tracking students, visitors. We have 120 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, roughly. How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states? Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them? How about people who are in settings – mosques, for instance – who may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror? Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what’s going on? Are we seeing who’s coming in, who’s coming out? Are we eavesdropping, carrying out surveillance on those individuals that are coming from places that have sponsored domestic terror?

And by the way, whose job is it do that? Should I do that as a governor? I’ve got those colleges and universities. Should my state police have an intelligence unit that’s monitoring people that are coming in? We’re an international port. Boston gets a lot of flights in. Should we be checking people coming from places of concern and following them, finding out where they go? Checking their hotels, seeing who they meet at their hotels? Should I be doing that at the state level? Should the federal government be doing it instead?

New York City … said, hey, the federal government’s not doing the job, we’d better do it as a city. New York City has substantially more people doing intelligence work, counter-terror work, than my whole state does. [An editorial aside: The population of New York City is about 8 million; of Massachusetts, less than 6.5 million.] As a matter of fact, I wondered whether as governor I was failing by not having this kind of a unit. So I got together with our colleagues on the Homeland Security Advisory Committee and said, we need to understand what the state’s role is and the local role is. Should we do what New York City is doing? Should I establish several hundred or several thousand people in an intelligence capability at the state level? Or should the city of Boston do it, or all 351 cities and towns?… And after working with a lot of different states, I came to some interesting conclusions. First, it is not the state’s role to organize a counter-terror and intelligence capability. That states are free to do that if they’d like to, but by and large that’s the role of the federal government, that’s the FBI. It’s their job to be doing that kind of work.

But it is, however, the state’s role to do something else, and that is to take advantage of the one intelligence source where we have a substantial advantage relative to the terrorists. And that is the advantage of lots of eyes and ears. And that is, it’s the state’s role to find out how to gather the data from its citizens, from the private sector, from the local police departments, from the water and meter readers and so forth, to get the eyes and ears that we have. It’s the state’s responsibility to figure out how to gather that information and fuse it together, interpret it, analyze it, fuse it together, and send it to Washington where it can be connected with eyes and ears from other states, and foreign intelligence, to determine where real threats exist.

Before moving on to another topic, he spent a few moments praising Massachusetts’s own so-called fusion center, which itself has been a matter of some controversy among civil libertarians. And, yes, his reference to meter-readers sounded positively Poindexteresque.

Romney’s comments strike me as troubling but not outrageous. The real problem, I think, is that Romney – while trying to pump up his presidential hopes – said things that could be interpreted as offensive to Muslims without having made the effort to reach out to them first.

As Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, told Helman in a follow-up story, “If the governor is not going to apologize, the least he could do is reach out to the Muslim and immigrant community and say, ‘This is where I was coming from.’ Nobody is going to disagree that there are extremists who are looking to hurt us. We’re just asking for some time around the table to have a conversation.”

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  1. Anonymous

    Romney chose an inflammatory and unPC example in “wiretapping mosques” and appears to be grossly ignorring the very real civil liberties issues. However, a focus on intelligence and prevention (which worked with pre-Y2K bomb plots) instead of response and point-target defense (milk plants, nukes, tankers, subways for 2 weeks) is recommended by leading independent security analysists. Intelligence is the only way to defend everywhere. The question must be how to gather and act upon domestic intelligence without the gross violations of civil liberties seen under Hoover’s FBI and the HUAC?- Bill R

  2. Anonymous

    When are people going to address the issue of proselytizing? I just want Imams to order their congregations to grant me the same rights they request for themselves. If the folks offended by Romney were as offended by the madrasa-fed violence, most Americans would be a lot more sympathetic to Islamic concerns. Only when Southern Christians said unambiguously that the Klan did not speak for them (and condemned the actions of the Klan), only then did KKK start to crumble. Similar leadership is required from Islamic leaders, including our alleged Saudi “friends”.

  3. mike_b1

    Did we ever find out what the deal was about Romney and those 8 wives of his back in Utah?

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