top of page

Reflections on the Influence of the 9/11 Attacks on Domestic Security and Future Cyber Security

Dr. Jason Thomas, Texas A&M University, answers the question: What can 9/11 teach us to secure our cyberspace?

Full tittle: Reflections on the Influence of the 9/11 Attacks on Domestic Security Practices and Future Security Needs.

The 9/11 terrorist attack is arguably the most famous act of terrorism in history. This event changed the worlds view about the security of the United States. More importantly the attack brought into the question safety of U.S. citizen’s safety within the borders of their own country and the need for domestic security (DHS, 2017).

Prior to this deadly attack most Americans had no experience with terrorist attack within the nation’s borders (Chertoff, 2011). In fact, most government agencies, especially local and domestically focused agencies had little to no experience with terrorist attacks. Attacks were seen as things that happened elsewhere in other countries. The closest information or experience that Americans and government employees with terrorist attacks prior the 9/11 tragedy were the unique airplane hijackings that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (Clark, 2016).

The plane hijackings were more stories to most Americans than actual events that impacted them. The closest incident that would be considered a far-reaching terrorist attack in the United States up until 9/11 was the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 by Islamic extremists which resulted in an explosion that injured thousands of people and killed six victims (Shin, 2017).

The 9/11 attacks were seminal event in U.S. history that forever changed the way that our government and citizens viewed the safety of the United States, the effectiveness of its domestic security methods, and interoperations of law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies (DHS, 2017). This devastating attack lead to high profile government inquiry and investigation into the factors that allowed the attack to happen and recommendations that ensure another attack would not happen again by the 9/11 Commission (The 9/11 Commision, 2004).

One the more significant recommendations from the 9/11 Commission was the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure that future terrorist attacks could be Electronic copy available at: 2 properly addressed and thwarted (DHS, 2015). The DHS was created combining some 22 different federal organizations and departments to form a new organization. The establishment of this new department has great influenced and changed the manner all agencies from the federal all the way down to the local level hand surveillance, information sharing, and terrorist event response.

The View of Domestic Security Prior the 9/11 Attacks

The attacks that took place on that dreadful day of September 11, 2001 changed all perceptions of domestic terrorist threats as well as how terrorism should be fought (DHS, 2015). The shock and horror caused by the 9/11 attacks as well are the acknowledgement that terrorist organizations and methods had changed brought about credence to new terrorism theories and adoption of the term new terrorism (Kurtulus, 2011).

New terrorism refereed to a qualitative change in demeanor terrorists and the nature of terrorism in several areas such as (a) strong religious motivation, (b) robust organization structures and networks, (c) a preference for attacks capable of creating mass casualties, and (d) a desire to use weapons of mass destruction (Laqueur, 1996; Simon & Benjamin, 2000; Duyvesteyn, 2004). Once new terrorism was defined, it was easy to see a new for new methods of counterterrorism. Consequently, the counterterrorism paradigm – the war on terror was born (Illing, 2017).

One of the primary issues that enabled the success of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the ineffective communication and lack of information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies (DHS 2017, The 9/11 Commision 2004, Zegart 2008, 107th Congress 2001). Better understand how this critical failure came to be requires an understanding views of domestic surveillance prior to the 9/11 attacks and how they came to be.

At the time of 9/11 attacks there were many red lines put in place that prevented intelligence agencies from sharing information with local law enforcement agencies (The 9/11 Commision, 2004). Many of these rules and regulations were establish as a result of the Cold War. During the Cold War both law enforcement and intelligence agencies worked together to perform domestic intelligence duties. However, during these operations many civil rights were violated as these agencies spied on U.S. citizens and conducted unethical investigations to gather intelligence (Hafetz, 2006).

As there were no rules and regulations in place to sufficiently govern the actions of the Cold War intelligence efforts, the intelligence collection efforts and surveillance used were indiscriminate and targeted innocent American citizens. Government investigation revealed that these efforts had violated the privacy and constitutional rights of large numbers of U.S. citizens (94th Congress, 1976). Domestic security efforts were unchecked and out of control.

As the news of these rights violations and privacy intrusion reached the general public, people became shocked and outraged. The government was called to address these issues. The President issued executive orders. Congress passed new laws and government agencies were directed to change their methods and actions to prevent abuse of privacy.

During this time actions were taken separate the activities of law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies (Best, 2007). Though these actions seemed appropriate at the time and imprinted a strong negative stigma on intelligence agencies and concept of domestic intelligence. Little did anyone know, the catastrophic damages that would be incurred as result of these actions in 2001.

Terrorism between the Cold War and the 9/11 Attacks

Prior to the 9/11 attacks most people in the United States that of terrorist attacks as incidents that happened mostly in other countries or in very small and isolated circumstances inside the United States (Chertoff, 2011). Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil were rare. Though many were familiar with terrorist plane hijackings (Clark, 2016), few had any real experience or consequences that resulted from terrorist attacks.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks the most notable terrorist attack was the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 in which six people died (Shin, 2017). After that there were several terrorist attempts to make domestic terrorist attacks. However, these attempts never got off the ground. The efforts were identified early in the planning stages of the attacks and the conspirators were stopped or arrested (Chertoff, 2011). This may have created an impression for the leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies that they had a handle on things and the domestic security was under control, lulling those groups into a false sense of security.

Outside the United States, terrorist attacks were occurring with increasing frequency. In Saudi Arabia, United States service personnel were killed in a bombing at the Khobar towers (Gross 2016, Soufan 2015). The United States embassies in East Africa were bombed by terrorists in 1998 (Burke, 2015). Shortly after that, in 2001, the USS Cole was successfully attacked near Yemen by Al-Qaeda terrorists (Chertoff, 2011).

The Oklahoma City bombing was the most deadly attack of the period which was committed by Timothy McVeigh who was a true domestic terrorist (FBI, 2015). On, April 19, 1995, McVeigh attacked the Alfred P. Murrah federal building with a bomb killing 168 people, 19 children, and injured some 500 people. Later the site of the attack was converted into a memorial to document the tragedy for all to remember.

McVeigh claimed membership in the Patriot Movement, an antigovernment group that was arguably a domestic terrorist organization (FBI, 2015). The Patriot Movement denied the authority and legitimacy of the law enforcement agencies and federal government of the United States. As the government tried to address these attacks with the criminal justice systems, several deficiencies came to light (Chertoff, 2011). The resources available to government were to Safe Streets Act, Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and the spider web of statutes and regulations governing domestic collection at the time (Chertoff, 2011).

During this period, intelligence collected by foreign and domestic intelligence agencies was tightly controlled. The release of intelligence information was regulated by the rules imposed after the Cold War. This meant that intelligence agencies were restricted from giving intelligence information to law enforcement agencies and law enforcement agencies were forbidden for collecting intelligence for their own future use (Chertoff, 2011). Essentially, law enforcement agencies had no opportunity to gather intelligence information on their own, nor receive critical information from national intelligence resources.

Conversely, these same regulations prohibited law enforcement agencies from passing information gathered or discovered during criminal investigations to intelligence agencies for use in non-law enforcement activities (Chertoff, 2011). This meant there was resistance and rules prohibiting these institutions form sharing information and supporting each other’s missions. Clearly, this inhibited the effective use of information to protect domestic security.

Further exacerbating domestic security efforts, when terrorists where arrested or captured abroad, they were treated as criminal offenders rather than terrorists. They were accorded the same rights as any other criminals such as being given the right to remain silent (Chertoff, 2011). Worse they were processed in accordance with the regular criminal justice system, which often mean release shortly after being detained due to process or being allowed to make bail.

The challenges of providing domestic security for the United States numerous and complex. There laws, organization, direction, and methods were not set-up to properly address terrorism. Sharing information was prohibited. There were no special provisions for dealing with terrorists (Chertoff, 2011).

The 9/11 Commission’s report identified many of these issues as it sought to assess the nations ability to combat terrorism (The 9/11 Commision, 2004). The problems identified by the 9/11 Commission included an inadequate intelligence infrastructure to detect, address, mitigate and nullify attacks and a gross inability to exchange actionable intelligence and meaningful (The 9/11 Commision, 2004)l information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The 9/11 Commission’s report identified many of these issues as it sought to assess the nations ability to combat terrorism (The 9/11 Commision, 2004). The problems identified by the 9/11 Commission included an inadequate intelligence infrastructure to detect, address, mitigate and nullify attacks and a gross inability to exchange actionable intelligence and meaningful (The 9/11 Commision, 2004)l information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The agencies charged formally or who were situationally required to deal with domestic terrorism were unable and prohibited from coordinating information exchange which could identify patterns of behavior that could predict or identify potential terrorist attacks (Chertoff, 2011). The guidelines regulating surveillance and the ability to communicate intelligence data were difficult to apply, complex, and challenging to interpret. This inhibited the identification, capture, and detainment of potential terrorists and ultimately bolsters terrorist’s ability to conduct acts of domestic terrorism against the United States.

Consequently, on September 11, 2001, the United States was not prepared to defend itself against terrorist attacks. The infrastructure and process place both inside and outside the country was overly complex and ultimately ineffective. All of these issues made United States vulnerable. The lack of understanding of modern terrorists and the modern terror threat, the hard division of law enforcement and intelligence agencies prohibiting information sharing, and the lack of vehicle for groups to cooperate and support each other’s missions enabled the destruction that occurred as a result of the 9/11 attacks (The 9/11 Commision, 2004).

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Suggested Citation:

Thomas, Jason, Reflections on the Influence of the 9/11 Attacks on Domestic Security Practices and Future Cyber Security Needs (May 11, 2018).


bottom of page