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Is the FBI Getting Better at Preventing Terrorist Attacks?

A new report suggests the US intelligence apparatus is improving amid growing civil liberties concerns in post 9/11 America.
March 26, 2015, 2:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Jonas Forth

On July 22, 2004, just a few months before George W. Bush's re-election, the 9/11 Commission released its report. The document stands as the definitive review of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, essentially serving as a summary of what went wrong.

On Wednesday morning, the 9/11 Review Commission published an update, this one called "The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century." The co-authors—former Attorney General Edwin Meese, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, and former Congressman Timothy J. Roemer—were asked by Congress last year to check out what the intelligence community has done to make the country safer over the last decade. The result is an in-depth analysis of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, highlighting the agency's progress during a period that saw the nature of intelligence-gathering evolve dramatically.

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Turns out the FBI has made some strides, but there's still a lot of work to do when it comes to warding off terrorist attacks while simultaneously addressing civil liberties concerns in the Edward Snowden era.

"Many of the findings and recommendations in this report will not be new to the FBI. The bureau is already taking steps to address them," the co-authors wrote. "In 2015, however, the FBI faces an increasingly complicated and dangerous global threat environment that will demand an accelerated commitment to reform."

The report conjures up this image of an omnipresent enemy that is constantly taking different shapes and forms, whether it's an ISIS-affiliated hacker or a young teenager in Boston who's been exposed to anti-American sentiment on YouTube. "Everything is moving faster," the co-authors wrote.

To match this pace, the report argues, the FBI needs to step up its game.

Prescriptions include hiring more linguists for operations at the local and state levels and better communication with the Department of Justice's National Security Division. The report simultaneously criticized "passive resistors," or officials who are dragging their feet on important measures, and argued that "visionary leadership" is needed "more than ever."

The authors examined five major cases of national security threats, including the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 and a thwarted plot by al Qaeda to attack New York City's subways in 2009. In all five cases, the 9/11 Review Commission found that the FBI's use of informants failed; for example, in the months leading up to the Boston Marathon, the report faulted the bureau for not being aware that Tamerlan Tsarnaev angrily interrupted two separate events at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

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To Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University, fellow at the Brookings Institute, and staff member on the original 9/11 Commission back in '04,"deep, fundamental problems" with strategic analysis persist in the intelligence community. "They have small problems, and tend to treat them like big problems," he explained. But before 9/11, no system existed for these new threats. According to Byman, the FBI is now more plugged into local communities, but he argued that that a Cold-War mentality lingers.

"For the FBI, it involves a very different culture, with characters they're not used to working with," he told me. "And it takes a long time to change these cultures…. It takes new resources for all sorts of paradigms, and requires new training to deal with this stuff."

In the context of the Boston Marathon, the report mentioned "the civil liberties sensitivities of source networks within religious institutions," perhaps a nod to the notorious NYPD surveillance of Muslim mosques in the tri-state area. The authors suggested the FBI employ common sense, gathering its intelligence from actual humans living in any given area rather than using informants on the inside. Basically, someone in the Cambridge Muslim community should've been hit up for information on Tsarnaev. But how that would happen without an added dose of racial profiling or targeted surveillance is left unclear.

That's the hardest part of the report to swallow: the co-authors seem to teeter back and forth between advocating borderline-unconstitutional surveillance and the protection of civil liberties. To wit: the Patriot Act is mentioned eight times in the report, and the co-authors argue that the 2001 legislation is "essential" in America's counter-terrorism strategy. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, an integral part of Snowden's NSA leaks, is mentioned ten times.

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"Civil liberties" come up often too, and the co-authors argue that the FBI should set up an independent advisory board that keeps tabs on whether the shit they're doing—like reading emails without court orders—is street legal. (The same can be said of the report's 2004 predecessor, the original 9/11 Commission report, which had eight mentions of civil liberties—long before "metadata" became a thing.)

Back then, according to Byman, ours was a world without the same public personas—"No YouTube, no Twitter, no Facebook"—and the difference now is that there's "a lot of data to surveill," the idea being that the information we post online is "fair game" to law enforcement.

The passage of time is also key here. "Part of it was that we were working in the shadow of 9/11," he said.

People were less willing to take up arms (politically speaking) over domestic intelligence measures then. Now, over a decade later, the American people have not seen another massive terrorist attack on their shores, but the specter of intrusion by the federal government looms large in the cultural imagination.

Yet even a decade ago, the members warned that protecting civil liberties was a top priority, while also calling for the unification of intelligence, branches of government, and the American people to stomp out terrorism indefinitely—something that the Patriot Act was supposed to tie together unlike any other bill in modern history. For that reason, the members said a "full and informed debate on the Patriot Act would be healthy."

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Unfortunately, the new report does not comment on whether or not this debate ever happened, either in Congress or within the FBI.

What the report does show, in essence, is that both the American intelligence apparatus and the public are still learning how to live in a post-9/11 world. The flawed strategies of the FBI since then are unfortunate trial and errors, but useful trials, nonetheless. Our discussions of civil liberties are much denser now than they were in the early days of Saddam Hussein's downfall, and continue to permeate the higher levels of government.

In a world that seems to offer a new terrorist threat every day, perhaps this reminder of where we've been is coming at exactly the right time.

"With the report, it's, 'Look how far we've come,'" Byman said, "but also, 'Look how far we have to go.'"

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