As Eric Schmitt reports in today’s New York Times, FBI agents have been rushing after thousands of terrorism leads, ranging from a missing 55-gallon drum of radioactive material (it was later found on a loading dock) to threats to shopping malls. They are now key players in America’s counterterrorism effort, and the agents themselves do not seem to mind: “It’s better to do that than find out later you let something get by,” one of them told Schmitt.

Yet running after so many leads may actually be counterproductive, said Amy Zegart, a UCLA professor who specializes in intelligence matters. She explains in the article that this strategy burns through resources at the agency. Besides that, where are the cops in all this? In the U.K., police play a significant role in fighting terrorism: They know who the suspects are in their neighborhoods, and where they hang out, and when they might be planning an actual attack. In the U.S., this job is often done by the FBI, and the results have been underwhelming. There have been arrests -- the “North Carolina jihadists,” as the special-forces soldiers at Fort Bragg called the men in suburban Raleigh who were recently taken in (though the evidence is scant). There was also the Fort Dix case, in which two paid informants recorded hundreds of hours of conversation among several men in the Cherry Hill, N.J. area and may have actually encouraged them to talk about attacking the military base. Meanwhile, some analysts, such as University of Maryland’s Aaron Mannes, have questioned the overall efficacy of going after the heads of terrorism cells, saying that taking out the leaders does not necessarily break up a cell or even reduce its activity.

One leading terrorism expert who advises U.S. police departments believes strongly that the cops should be doing this work, not the FBI guys, and he has a compelling argument. He says that the actions of the FBI agents are like those of an “agent provocateur:” They are attempting to stir things up in order to show, rightly or wrongly, that the threat of terrorism is high and that the FBI has an important job to do. They also show a propensity for conspiracy theories, he says, explaining that they look for suspects in unlikely places and arrest people even when there are few signs that they are planning an attack. The suspects in North Carolina, for example, had been planning to move to Jordan -- and were then arrested. As the analyst tells me, “If you want to see a conspiracy, it’s the people in the Hoover building in downtown Washington.” The number of FBI agents assigned to the counterterrorism duties is staggering -- more than 5,000 -- and they have had a recent history of dubious arrests. One wonders whether this is really the smartest way of protecting the nation from a future attack or whether it is simply the way that a bureaucracy responds to a crisis.

--Tara McKelvey