There's an old saying in the intelligence business that goes something like this: The operations that go as planned never get noticed; mistakes make the headlines.
Pretty much the same has been true in domestic law enforcement's struggle to prepare for or prevent the next major terror attack on American soil. Since 9/11, the headlines and news broadcasts from the mainstream media have blared your shortcomings and ridiculed actual attempts to save lives and stop attacks.
Could the Fort Dix Six have really caused massive casualties on a U.S. Army base? Could those loons in New York really have blown up the jet fuel supply for JFK airport? The media will tell you that their plans were absurd. But on Sept. 10, 2001, no one in America would have believed that 19 men armed with box cutters could destroy the Twin Towers. So no one knows what would have happened if these "absurd" plots had moved beyond the planning stage and not been thwarted by alert law enforcement.
Experts say you deserve praise for being willing to withstand ridicule and even let bad guys win in court to prevent attacks. "If you ask me what law enforcement has done best since 9/11 is that they are stopping these plots in the beginning stages before they go operational," says E.J. Kimball, managing director of terrorism expert Steven Emerson's Investigative Project on Terrorism.
Despite such success stories, you get drubbed every day in the press for spending too much money on something. Not training enough on another thing. And just worrying about terrorism in general.
Some of the criticism is fair. But the truth is that American law enforcement has made great strides since 9/11 to strengthen its counter-terrorism capabilities and to improve its response to an attack.
It Can Happen Here
The first thing that changed immediately on the morning of 9/11 is that Americans and their law enforcement officers became very aware of the threat posed by organized, stateless Islamist terrorists.
It's hard to ignore someone who keeps threatening to kill you. But that's exactly what the majority of Americans did throughout the 1990s, as Osama Bin Laden levied threat after threat at the American people. On 9/11 such threats became very real.
Before 9/11 terror attacks by fanatical Muslim fundamentalists were thought of as something that happens elsewhere or only in the far-fetched imaginations of thriller writers like Tom Clancy. Even the original World Trade Center attack in 1993 didn't shake Americans out of the belief that they lived in an impregnable fortress, moated by two oceans.
Some Americans have clearly gone back to that way of thinking but, for the most part, law enforcement is very aware of the threat. And awareness is the first step in countering any threat.
Tale of Two Cities
The two American cities that are most aware of what horrors terrorists can unleash—New York and Washington, D.C.—get very high marks for their efforts to prevent and respond to terror attacks.
Reeling from the loss of nearly 3,000 people and the destruction of not just the Twin Towers but much of the entire World Trade Center complex on 9/11, the New York Police Department reacted by creating one of the finest counter-terrorism operations in the world.
The day before the 9/11 atrocities, the NYPD had fewer than two-dozen officers working full time on counter- and anti-terrorism operations. Today, it has nearly 1,000.
Back in 2002, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly hired former CIA Director of Operations Michael Sheehan as deputy commissioner for counter terrorism. Today, his predecessor Richard Falkenrath overseas an operation that gathers and analyzes intelligence, deploys officers oversees as liaisons in friendly and not-so-friendly countries, conducts financial investigations, manages undercover operations, and fields a tactical unit. NYPD's counter-terrorism operations are so well respected that they have even been tapped by the CIA to help train Agency officers in cyberintelligence.
Washington, D.C., the other 9/11 target has also experienced a sea change in how federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies protect the city and its suburbs. And perhaps no D.C.-area police agency has changed more since 9/11 than the department known unofficially as the "Pentagon Police."
Prior to 9/11 the agency was called the Defense Protective Service, and its primary mission was security for the Pentagon building, according to Chief Richard F. Keevil of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. Less than a year after 9/11, the Pentagon's police force underwent a dramatic transformation. It tripled in size, and it now runs all kinds of police operations, including intelligence.
Keevil says Congress authorized the new and improved Pentagon police force because it recognized a pattern in terror attacks. "Terrorists generally come back when they are not successful in destroying a target, and we are very aware that this could happen again to us here," he says.
New York and D.C. are not alone in adding or strengthening their counter-terrorism intelligence operations. Across the nation, federal, state, county, and local agencies have joined resources to create Fusion Centers.
Retired CIA officer Ed Lovette believes these efforts to pool resources, intelligence, and analysis are filling a great need and doing some impressive work. "That's the single biggest step that we've taken forward," he says. "The state and local agencies now share information."
Many major metropolitan areas also now have Terror Early Warning Groups (TEWG) that facilitate the sharing of information among local agencies. Alameda County (Calif.) Sheriff Greg Ahern says that his area's TEWG provides local law enforcement with a daily briefing on local and world events that could affect the area. "That briefing includes information about suicide bombings that happen around the world as well as information about local things such as police uniforms being stolen," he explains.
Of course intelligence has little or no value if no one acts on it. That was one of the tragic lessons revealed in the report of the 9/11 Commission. You can gather all of the intel in the world but if you don't share it and cooperate with other agencies to act on it, it's just noise.
Since 9/11, many agencies are working together and training together in ways few officers would have imagined a decade ago. One very important development in law enforcement cooperation is the regional SWAT team.
"You've got the potential for terrorism everywhere," says Howard Linett, an Israel-based police trainer, terrorism expert, and author. "So everybody has to be prepared. But not everybody has the means and financing to operate a tactical team capable of responding to a terror attack. Regional SWAT teams are an excellent idea."
School terrorism expert and author of "Terror at Beslan" John Giduck agrees with Linett that the advent of regional tactical teams is one of the most important developments in American terrorism response, especially in rural and suburban areas. "With regional SWAT teams in which each department contributes a small fraction of manpower, resources, and money, you can have an exponentially greater force than you could ever possibly afford otherwise. Through a regional SWAT team you dramatically increase interagency operability and communications. With that one effort, you can solve a multitude of problems."
Giduck wants SWAT commanders and police administrators to understand the absolute necessity of forming regional tactical teams to respond to major terrorists incidents. "Even a small SWAT team is used to overwhelming the enemy with numbers," he says. "A 15-officer SWAT team is usually only going up against one person. But in a terror attack, they are likely to face 10 terrorists with hostages in a fortified position. That is an enormous tactical difficulty."
Having more firepower and troops are only two of the advantages of forming regional SWAT teams. Because they have trained with each other and most likely shared a few drinks together, regional SWAT teams will know how to communicate with each other and work together should they be called into action.
That's the idea behind Urban Shield, a joint terrorism response training exercise organized by the Alameda County Sheriff's Department. The 50-hour exercise involves 25 Bay Area teams in a series of competitive operations. "Urban Shield allows us to practice our skills, test our equipment, and evaluate our personnel and their capabilities," says Alameda County Sheriff Ahern.
Although exercises like Urban Shield are competitions more than cooperative training programs, they do allow area tactical teams to familiarize themselves with each other's capabilities and that can be important. So can just sitting down and having a conversation.
Sheriff James Kralik of Rockland County, N.Y., says that one of the biggest changes in law enforcement since 9/11 is that the heads of different agencies are more likely to seek joint solutions to shared problems. "That's much easier now than in years past when it would have taken forever to get everybody on board," he says.
Veteran officer and weapons of mass destruction expert Elliott Grollman adds that one of the most remarkable aspects of interagency cooperation post 9/11 is that it includes agencies across the spectrum of public safety. "Collaboration between police, fire, and public health that is really new," he explains. "In my area (Washington, D.C.), we are working together with public health on forensic epidemiology. That's a brand new partnership that never existed before."
Can We Talk?
The ability of agencies to sit down and share ideas is easily accomplished just by changing attitudes. The ability to work together and communicate in the event of an incident is a lot more complicated.
Grollman, who is chairman of the law enforcement working committee on weapons of mass destruction for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, sings the praises of programs designed to make sure that all responding agencies are on the same page but he worries about communications interoperability.
"The biggest thing we're doing right is that we're starting to communicate with each other and standardize response through the National Incident Management System and the Incident Command System," Grollman says. But he quickly adds, "We still need to be able to communicate with each other technically to make it work."
There is much good news on the radio interoperability front. Agencies nationwide are aware of the problems and are working to solve them. For example, Ahern says agencies in the Bay Area have formed an organization called the Super Urban Area Security Initiative and one of its missions is to enhance communications interoperability.
In addition, a plan has been formulated for interoperability between all Alameda County and Contra Costa County agencies. The price tag for making this a reality is steep: $65 million. But Ahern says he expects the new radio system to be in place in three to five years.
And even without perfect radio interoperability there are measures that agencies can take to communicate should all hell break loose again on American soil. Even on 9/11, the Pentagon Police were able to communicate thanks to the efforts of a cell phone company.
"The cell system died quickly because there were so many people here in the D.C. area trying to use their cell phones that morning," says Keevil. "NexTel Direct Connect helped us out immensely by bringing in their mobile units."
We Are at War
Radio interoperability may be one of the most complex and expensive problems that has ever faced American law enforcement. But the toughest thing that American cops have had to cope with since 9/11 is understanding how their mission has changed.
"We have had to go from traditional crime fighting to being at war. That's a whole different mind-set," says Grollman.
But Grollman believes that many officers have been able to grasp the difference and that has greatly enhanced public safety. "We cannot take anything for granted now," he says. "And I think that many of us realize that. If a vehicle was parked in the wrong place in the past, we would just write a ticket or have it towed. Now we bring in the bomb dog and check it out before we have it towed."
Unfortunately, not everyone in American law enforcement is quite so vigilant. Nor is everyone convinced that the threat from foreign terrorists should remain a priority.
Giduck finds that police brass are more likely to discount the threat of terrorism in their community more than the rank and file officers. "Patrol officers understand that they will be asked to go screaming into this next horrible attack with lights and sirens," he says. "But there is increasing disenfranchisement as you go above them."
Fortunately, today's rank and file is tomorrow's police leadership. And that makes Giduck optimistic about the future of law enforcement terrorism response. He says that when he is approached by frustrated young patrol officers who are concerned about their commander's dismissal of terrorism threats, he gives them this advice: "Take the sergeant's test. Take the lieutenant's test. The people in charge now are not going to be around forever and eventually you are going to be in a position to effect change."
One reason why command staff may not be as gung ho about terrorism response training and counter-terror intel is that they have to answer to the boss: the public.
And seven years after 9/11, it's the brave chief or sheriff that goes to the boss and says we need more money for terrorism response and intel analysts. The public is much more concerned about home invasion robberies than it is about an al-Qaeda gas attack or bombing. A substantial percentage of Americans are convinced that AQ has shot its bolt and no longer represents a threat to the homeland. And among those who do believe an attack is coming, many take a fatalistic attitude. They believe an attack is coming and nothing can be done to stop it.
The battle to convince the public of the danger may be as arduous as the war against terror. But it has to be fought. And some cops are doing their best to teach the citizenry that the threat is not over.
Ahern says that one of the roles of the Terror Early Warning Group is to educate the community. It's a role that many experts say all cops must play.
"We have to make sure that the citizens understand that we can't relax our vigilance," says Keevil. "It's been seven years since 9/11, and the public wants to get on with their lives. Part of our job is to remind them that this is very serious and the [terrorists] never relent. If we drop our posture, they will take advantage of it."
Along with the fact that the media tends to belittle your attempts to strengthen American law enforcement's response to terrorism, one of the reasons why the public can't seem to take it seriously is the way it's presented. Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security told Americans to have duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand in case of a gas attack. That's actually not terrible advice. But it was presented badly, and the media and late night comics ridiculed it.
Retired CIA officer Lovett says that the problem was that the public was overwhelmed with all the information coming out of Homeland Security, and it just started to ignore the message. "We told people to be alert, but we didn't tell them what to look for. If you just tell people to be alert, then they burn out, and they stop listening to you."
Experts say that one way to gain public support for the cost of equipment and training you need to respond to terror attacks is to camouflage it with a dual purpose. For example, a new command center can be for natural disasters and terror response. And if the tactical team needs to train at the local middle school, it's easy to sell it as training for responding to a school shooter not a Beslan-type siege. "A school shooter is something that's more manageable and urgent to them," says Giduck. "It doesn't shock them out of the cocoon that everyone in America wants to hide in."
Horrors to Come
Fortunately, most American law enforcement officers don't live in that cocoon. And that may be the most important improvement in your ability to respond to terrorism. You expect it to happen.
What form an attack will take, what will trigger it, and where it will happen no one knows. But it's going to happen again.
Israeli terrorism expert Howard Linett is convinced that the next major terror attack on American soil will not come from al-Qaeda but from Iran-backed Hezbollah cells. He believes that the coming war between Israel and Iran or the United States and Iran will trigger Hezbollah operations in America.
Other experts who wouldn't go on record because they have no proof of their suspicions believe such an Iranian-instigated terror campaign is a strong possibility. They point to the fact that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned that he has ways to hurt America if war comes. "It's important that we take such statements seriously," says one expert who notes that Hezbollah is known to have cells in South America.
Regardless of where the next attack comes from, American law enforcement is better prepared to respond and even prevent terror attacks than it was seven years ago.
The trick now is maintaining that heightened vigilance.
"I think that after 9/11 great strides were made in the United States when it comes to terrorism response by law enforcement," says Linett. "Unfortunately continuing what was done may not be a priority going forward. I think that's a shame because it could end up costing a lot of lives in the future. I believe we are in a period of calm before the storm."