In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report, formally named “Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” was released. This report outlines the events leading up to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
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The report provides a detailed timeline of events on the day of the attacks, historical facts on terrorism within the United States and around the world, information pertaining to the attackers and their origins, details about the events leading up to the attacks and recommendations for improvement moving forward.
With 428 pages of text and another 139 pages of appendices and notes, the report is lengthy but engaging and sheds light on the successes and failures of the U.S. intelligence communities, local first responders, and state and federal partners involved in the response, investigation and recovery of the attacks.
The attacks, and the subsequent report that followed, literally changed the way first responders, emergency management and federal agencies think, train, respond to, mitigate and recover from terrorism in the homeland. While the report covers many topics and areas of improvement, one devastatingly important factor that our current law enforcement officers should consider is the need to share intelligence and information.
The number of active law enforcement personnel today who were also active at the time of the 9/11 attacks has naturally reduced significantly, leading to a knowledge gap that could mean agencies and officers are in danger of repeating history. One of the most common phrases used when discussing the 9/11 attacks each year is, “Never forget.” Is the United States on a path toward forgetting the lessons we learned? And what can we do about it?
On September 11, 2001, a coordinated multi-phase attack was executed in the United States using commercial airliners as weapons striking strategic targets, including the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon, and a fourth target that was never struck.
Investigations determined that al-Qaeda, under the direction of Osama Bin Laden, was responsible for the attacks. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, al-Qaeda had been preparing for the attack for quite some time. Evidence of this preparation was found in previous attacks in East Africa, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York by associated Islamic extremists, and the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, to name a few.
After four commercial jetliners were hijacked and heading for their targets on that horrific day, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, United Flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center, American Airlines Flight 77 plunged into the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers thwarted the attackers’ plans by fighting back.
The attacks claimed more than 2,700 lives and changed our homeland security landscape in countless ways. The fight against terrorism, the response to incidents, the management of responders, and the day-to-day operations of local, state, and federal law enforcement, fire services, medical services and the military have all changed dramatically.
The 9/11 Commission Report cites multiple failures regarding information and intelligence sharing that might have derailed the planned attack. The 9/11 Commission Report’s Executive Summary (available in full below) highlights those failures as follows:
- Not watchlisting future hijackers or trailing them as they traveled and not informing the FBI about a future hijacker’s U.S. visa or his companion’s travel to the United States.
- Not sharing information linking individuals in the USS Cole attack to the future terrorists.
- Not taking adequate steps in time to find the future terrorists in the United States.
- Not linking the arrests of individuals who were described as being interested in flight training for the purpose of using an airplane in a terrorist act to the heightened indications of attack.
- Not discovering false statements on visa applications.
- Not recognizing passports that were fraudulently manipulated.
- Not expanding no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watchlists.
- Not searching airline passengers identified by the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS).
- Not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings.
While some of these failures are not related to the sharing of intelligence and information, many are. Different agencies within the intelligence community had different bits of information related to the hijackers – pieces of information that were not shared with other agencies. In hindsight, if each of the intelligence agencies had willingly shared their information with the others, it seems that the overall big picture of the potential for attack would have been clearer and tracking the hijackers would have been more of a priority.
But as the report states, “everyone involved was confused about the rules governing the sharing and use of information gathered in intelligence channels.”
PIECING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER
Intelligence and information sharing have long been compared to solving a puzzle or connecting the dots. Imagine if a region’s law enforcement agencies were tasked with solving a jigsaw puzzle containing 100 pieces. The pieces of the puzzle are scattered across the region, and each law enforcement agency in the region possesses at least one piece. The rules are simple, solve the puzzle.
But very similar to the sharing of intelligence and information before the attacks of 9/11, there are several factors that must be overcome. First, these law enforcement agencies must know that the puzzle exists in order to solve it. Without that basic knowledge, each of their own puzzle pieces may simply appear to be meaningless garbage and could easily be dismissed.
Intelligence, security and public safety agencies should assume that the homeland is threatened daily. Not necessarily by international terrorists planning an attack equal to the magnitude of 9/11, but more likely smaller-scale events from homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), lone wolf attackers and other domestic threats that stem from domestic or international radical ideologies.
Second, each agency must be willing to proactively share the information they have without waiting for a request from another agency. Law enforcement is traditionally hindered by a reticence to share information with one another for a variety of reasons.
Whether an agency, as a whole, or an individual investigator within that agency has too much pride to share, wants to take credit for any find or arrest, is worried about what information to share, has privacy concerns about sensitive information, doesn’t know where to share, doesn’t know how to share, or just simply doesn’t want to do the work involved in sharing, the consequences of failure are the same. If an attack is successful, the very community these agencies are sworn to protect suffers.
Finally, there must be a centralized location or repository where the puzzle pieces are collected and linked together. Fusion centers, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) centers and other intelligence centers serve this purpose. Information and intelligence that is shared with local, state and federal agencies should come to a central point like a fusion center that can retrieve all the puzzle pieces – or information – and begin to put them together and analyze them for actionable intelligence. When the puzzle becomes more clear, further investigation can pursue in the right direction. As the report states, “A ‘smart’ government would integrate all sources of information to see the enemy as a whole.”
A PATH FOR MOVING FORWARD
The 9/11 Commission Report finishes with a detailed list of recommendations for intelligence communities moving forward. While these recommendations seem to be common sense, keep in mind that they were recommended because they were not followed before the 9/11 attacks and might have been vital to the prevention of the attacks: “The biggest impediment to all-source analysis – to a greater likelihood of connecting the dots – is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information.” Further, “there are no punishments for not sharing information. Agencies uphold a ‘need-to-know’ culture of information protection rather than promoting a ‘need-to-share’ culture of integration.”
It seems that law enforcement and the intelligence communities have taken greater steps to improve the sharing of intelligence and information since the 9/11 attacks, however, there is still much progress that must be made.
It has been more than two decades since the devastating attack. This means police academies across the country are filled with new recruits who weren’t even born when the attacks occurred. That also means that some investigators, frontline supervisors, commanders, and administrators in law enforcement agencies across the country may have been only 6 or 7 when the attacks took place. This means their only recollection and knowledge of the attacks are based on stories they’ve heard or documentaries they’ve watched.
The 9/11 Commission Report is still relevant today. It is essential for law enforcement, intelligence communities, first responders, military personnel and politicians alike to read this report cover to cover. It is available free online or purchased in book form. To be in the business of protecting a community, one must be fully prepared. Winston Churchill once wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So, for the sake of the communities we serve, our fellow first responders and our great country, read the report, consider the recommendations, make changes and “never forget.”
9/11 Commission Report Executive Summary by epraetorian on Scribd
NEXT: A post 9-11 intelligence analyst’s advice for local law enforcement