Panelists describe major improvements in military, national intelligence, state and local surveillance tools.
The federal government's centralized terrorist watch list, which was created after the 9/11 attacks from 12 separate lists at nine different agencies, has likely "kept a thousand terrorists out of the country," a veteran congressional intelligence committee staffer told a panel on Thursday.
"If a couple of the 9/11 hijackers had been on a watch list, we would have begun breaking the terrorist plot, and so the Homeland Security Department has fixed the that problem," said David Barton, who worked on the 2004 intelligence reform law and is now an adjunct professor of foreign policy at The George Washington University. He spoke at the National Press Club in Washington in a discussion titled "Ten Years Later: 9/11 and a Government Changed," produced by Government Executive Media Group.
The government's post-9/11 reforms such as creation of Homeland Security and restructuring of the intelligence community contain "enormous positives" and were executed using the democratic process, Barton said, thanks in part to persistence from the families of 9/11 victims who demanded change and accountability.
When he began working with the House-Senate inquiry into 9/11, Barton said, he noticed that "leaders and analysts kept bouncing up against strictures of a particular bureaucracy, and there was stovepiping of intelligence." When the idea of consolidating 22 agencies into one large agency was broached, "there was fear of a large structure," he said. "But 9/11 had exposed significant vulnerabilities," so the risk was worthwhile.
Another major change for the better is activation of state and local law enforcement officers as the first line of prevention in adding to the intelligence mix, said Thomas O'Reilly, a longtime public safety official in New Jersey now director of the Justice Department's Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. "After 9/11 people spoke of connecting the dots, but we say if you don't collect them, you can't connect them," he said.
O'Reilly recalled two major breakthroughs after the attacks. One was a meeting in Canada led by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that led to creation of DHS' 72 fusion centers that receive and sort data to overcome what is often derided as the "fire hose" of available information.
Soon after 9/11, he said, New Jersey state police were spending $1 million a week in overtime for officers responding to reported threats in an "unscientific way" using old fashioned fixed patrol zones and work shifts. The centers take advantage of 18,000 police departments and 800,000 local officers who are now deployed more systematically, he said.
Another oft-cited problem in the government's response was the need to automate information sharing among law enforcement entities, O'Reilly said. The Justice Department created a type of software called the National Information Exchange Model, which DHS adopted in 2004. It, in turn, led to creation of the suspicious activity reporting initiative. Now used by 14 federal agencies (and soon to be adopted by Canada and Mexico), SAR "grew from a technology to a comprehensive tool used in training, community outreach and policy vetting," O'Reilly said.
As an example of its value, he said, a citizen spots an unfamiliar car parked on his block at 2:00 a.m. and phones police. Though investigating officers may not enter the car unless they see, say, a burglar's tools, the citizen's report, which in the past might have languished in a cardboard box, now goes into the NIEM database for possible future exploitation.
The well-known impact of 9/11 on the military was described by Army Major Gen. Jeff W. Mathis III, deputy director for anti-terrorism and homeland defense at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Before that attacks, "the military mind-set was we live to train," he said. "After 9/11 we became deployed in the fight. We went from a conventional fight and a kinetic battle with large units to counterterrorism using special operations. It was a huge change in how we look at what we do, for general officers down to noncommissioned officers."
Mathis said the armed forces had improved their agility to collaborate among services, within the Defense Department, with Homeland Security and with allies. The biggest organizational change, he said, was the standing up of the Northern Command responsible for homeland defense.
The biggest psychological change is the fact that service members now "deploy for 12 or even 15 months instead of training" in 30-day stints," Mathis said. "We have an entire officer corps who know nothing but this type of war. I'm very proud of it, but it's a tremendous stress on their children. We have the best-equipped intel-fused Army in U.S. history."
All panelists agreed the intelligence reforms brought major improvements. Barton recalled by comparison how agencies "stovepiped" in the own cultures resulted in "barriers to swift and immediate exchanges of information." The new structure uses human intelligence and geospatial data to track threats, which "maximizes the capabilities and excellent work of analysts," he said.
Mathis credits "well-fused intelligence" as a key factor in the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals. "The intelligence is now used down at the tactical level, and platoons have ability to apply actionable intelligence almost instantaneously," he said.
Barton regrets, however, that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lacks authority over budgets and personnel and that its staff is larger than envisioned. Unfortunately, he said, the work of the National Counterterrorism Center is "mirrored at the CIA. Both have grown, and there have been some glitches," he says.
O'Reilly was asked whether there's a problem of the intelligence community receiving too much information -- for example, the 300 reports a month that come from DHS' Office of Intelligence and Analysis. "It's a matter of maturity as we move forward," he said. With 18 sectors of critical infrastructure targets, such as trains, dams, drinking water [and] petroleum, the 300 reports are not general, but specific to trains or maritime targets, so you have to put them in perspective against the mission," he said, adding that "things have gotten a lot better since 2003, when people didn't know which way to run."
Barton said he's never heard analysts complain of too much information. "They love information, the more raw the better," he said.
Asked for their likely response to the coming governmentwide budget cuts, O'Reilly said state and local jurisdictions could become more active in intelligence work, while Mathis predicted that the Pentagon would be under pressure to trim personnel.