Are we safer 15 years after 9/11?
On September 11, 2001, I was an officer with the DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC). I joined MPDC after two and a half years on the New York Terrorist Trials Operations Command with the US Federal Protective Service, where we provided heightened security in Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn following the 1993 World Trade Center attacks and subsequent indictments tried in New York federal courts thereafter. On September 11, 2001, I was in court awaiting my case when the attacks occurred and, because of my background from New York, was detailed to work in the Joint Operations Command Center, helping to coordinate the law enforcement response to the Pentagon attack and DC-area security following the attack.
As a result of my work in anti-terrorism, I learned to play connect the dots. How did a gap in communication prevent us from identifying an immediate threat? Was a threat identified and not properly addressed somewhere in the chain of command? Was proper security in place to deter or mitigate a threat? Was an attack properly responded to? All of these questions were the postmortem to each attack or attempt thereof to our nation (as well as some that occurred in other nations). All of these questions led to one very important one: As a nation, are we prepared to address the next threat and/or respond to the next attack?
This question weighed heavily on me last weekend, as I joined my friends, brothers and sisters in arms from all over the country in New York to commemorate the 15th anniversary of a day that changed our lives forever. I spent the weekend talking with members of the law enforcement community from all over our nation. Other than the solemn duty of remembrance for our gathering, our discussions had a heavy undertone to them; which was in anticipating if and when the next attack was to occur.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration created a two-pronged approach to addressing the terrorist threat; our Military approach in the War on Terrorism and the reorganization of law enforcement resources to address the threat domestically. Many Americans are now questioning the legacy of this approach. Personally, I firmly believe that these were necessary responses to the attacks, in where Afghanistan was actively harboring the head of the organization responsible for the attack while our vast law enforcement and intelligence resources failed to prevent the attacks domestically.
What needs to be examined now is the legacy of what has been invested over the last 15 years in time, manpower, tax dollars and most importantly the lives of our service members.
On the military front, many Americans are experiencing war fatigue associated with our lengthy involvement in Afghanistan and questionable grounds for involvement in Iraq. However, it’s important for us to address threats to our homeland before they come to our shores. In addressing Al Qaeda, we sent troops to Afghanistan to go after the central leadership of an organization, eradicate a regime that harbored such terrorists, and in sending our troops into what al Qaeda considered their “Ummah” which focused the global jihad on pushing western troops out of the “Islamic World.”
This last point was also important in giving our domestic law enforcement and intelligence operators the time to reorganize locally to best prevent and mitigate future threats here. Subsequently, the Iraq invasion took the focus off of the war on terrorism and to a national regime, resulting in the distrust of our military involvement in the War on Terror and the desire to pull out of both theaters of operations. In some instances, ground operations were supplemented by increased use of drone strikes, but without strong human intelligence capabilities on the ground, some questionable drone strikes have resulted in negative consequences for the mission. Most notably, as American troops were drawn down in Iraq, a power vacuum was created; contributing to the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Domestically, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and reorganization of federal law enforcement were one of the most lasting legacies of our response to the 9/11 attacks. For every successful terrorist attack on American soil; the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and their task forces do a tremendous job in thwarting many others through the use of informants, undercover agents and intelligence analysis. However, certain key aspects of the reorganization have not stood up to scrutiny. For example, many federal law enforcement agencies previously under the Treasury and Justice Departments, like Secret Service, US Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Border Patrol were reorganized under DHS. Curiously, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was moved to the Justice Department. Not only does this job have “explosives” in its title, but it’s the federal agency responsible for enforcing firearms laws. One would think that they would be positioned to receive necessary funding and a full complement of agents, especially now that ISIL-inspired terrorists are increasingly choosing the active shooter and improvised explosive devices to carry out attacks. In a previous piece I wrote about addressing the issue of active shooters and gun violence, I noted increased funding to the ATFE and the effective enforcement of existing gun laws as a way to address these attacks.
Most notably, the creation of the massive Transportation Security Administration continues to receive poor marks from the performance audits conducted by the DHS Inspector General. Furthermore, these issues were on the TSA’s aviation security role, where roughly 90% of their workforce is based. Surface and rail transportation has a small non-law enforcement inspection program under TSA, but is still fairly unregulated federally; meaning that high-value targets like trains and buses are still left to underfunded local and transit policing agencies to secure. So leaving surface and rail transportation out of it, the majority of TSAs 45,000 employees are focused on airports, where long security lines have cost the airline industry millions. What many may not know is that when TSA was still part of the Federal Aviation Administration, in 2002, its first Administrator was John Magaw, a former Secret Service Director. Magaw’s approach to airport security was to hire trained, well-paid professionals in the tradition of the Secret Service Uniform Division and his tenure only lasted six months. One is left to wonder if, given the time and funding, Magaw’s approach would have had a better long-term legacy for the TSA.
Fifteen years after the attacks, America still has a problem looking at the ‘big picture’ surrounding our security posture. Americans have the tendency to want to get back to ‘normal’ or ‘business as usual’ instead of identifying a ‘new normal’ based on the realities we face as a nation. Despite partisan beliefs on both sides of the aisle, we are not targets for terrorists solely because of our interventions in the middle-east; nor are we targeted “because they hate our way of life.” Why we’re targeted is a complicated, nuanced discussion. Therefore, what may be needed in our nation on a larger scale is a collective acceptance that we’ve been targeted by terrorists and work together to address these threats by finding that ‘new normal’ in a positive way.
Many Americans have grown suspicious of the government’s labeling of Active Shooter attacks like Ft. Hood, San Bernardino, the shooting of Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett and Orlando as “lone wolf” or “isolated gun violence”. This is because the investigation reports and at times, even the attackers themselves, attributes their crimes to radicalization by foreign terrorist groups. How are we, as a nation, supposed to address the threat of terrorism when we don’t attribute the radicalization of attackers to terrorist groups, and use existing laws like Sedition to try to track and shut down the methods used to radicalize people and insight violence?
In conclusion, yes, we are safer because our law enforcement community is looking for threats through fusion centers and other resources. However, we are in no means “safe” from the threat of terrorism and have significant room for improvement in addressing this issue. In Israel, when a bus is bombed, the scene is processed and that route is placed back in service that same day. At the same time, Shin Bet and Mossad work together to identify the terrorist and go after the group responsible within hours or days of the attack. Why can’t we work in a similar manner? Perhaps the best tribute to the Americans of all walks of life who died on 9/11 is for us to come together, prevent further attacks, and show the world we can put politics aside in assuring our safety.
Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME
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