Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

9/11: Before and After

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

9/11: Before and After

Article excerpt

Where Were We?

Until September 11, 2001, the United States had limited experience with terrorist attacks on our own soil, and only intermittent experience with attacks overseas. During the 1970s and 80s, airline hijackings and overseas bombings were the focus of most terrorist activity. In 1993, violent Islamist extremists bombed the World Trade Center, causing six deaths and more than a thousand injuries, but failing to significantly damage the structures themselves. During the next decade, several domestic focused Islamist terrorist plots were foiled at the planning stage; however, additional attacks were conducted overseas, by operatives of Hezbollah killing US service personnel in 1996 at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, by al Qaeda bombing of US embassies in East Africa in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole near Yemen in 2000. The most deadly attack domestically during the 1990s was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist.

All of these attacks and attempts were addressed through the existing criminal justice system. Under that legal architecture, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, as well as a host of other statutes and regulations, governed domestic intelligence collection. Exchange of information collected by foreign and domestic agencies was determined by a strict set of rules that was (perhaps somewhat incorrectly) interpreted as forbidding pure "intelligence" information from being collected for law enforcement purposes, and - conversely - made it difficult to share criminal justice-derived information with other agencies. When terrorists were apprehended either in the United States or abroad, they were accorded the treatment of any other criminal defendant, including receiving warnings about the right to silence, and a full-blown criminal jury trial.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and the consequent retrospective investigations - such as the 9/11 Commission Report - exposed the inadequacy of this architecture in addressing and thwarting further attacks. The inability to coordinate information collection and integration among various agencies led to the failure to identify patterns of behavior that might have provided warning of attack. Rules designed to govern electronic surveillance in the days of fixed land-line communications were difficult to apply to communications media such as mobile, disposable telephones or voice over internet communications. And even when terrorists were identified and apprehended, difficulties in providing evidence admissible in traditional courtroom proceedings left authorities with few avenues to detain or incapacitate them.

For the fundamental lesson was this: a counterterrorism architecture that is founded on criminal justice principles is fundamentally oriented to punishing those who have plotted or carried out attacks. But with the danger to innocent life posed by modern terrorism, prevention and not punishment becomes the critical driver for counterterrorism. And that required refashioning our legal tool set.

This refashioning focused on three elements of the counterterrorism process: intelligence collection, information integration, and terrorist incapacitation. The first refers to how we can better collect information in real time within the context of modern global communication, travel, and finance. The second focuses on how we can better combine and integrate that information once collected. And the third addresses how we can act on that information to incapacitate terrorists at the earliest stage before they can advance their operations.

Where are we?

Intelligence Collection

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, the Bush Administration worked with Congress to update some of the rules governing interception of electronic communications and to streamline information requests. …

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