Counter-Terrorism: Small Change, Big Result


November9, 2006: Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has not suffered a major terrorist attack on American soil. In fact, several such attacks have been thwarted. Why is this? The answer was a simple change of mission by the FBI and more communication between the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community.

In the 1990s, the FBI built criminal cases against terrorists - with the intention of locking them up in prison. This meant that making sure evidence of a terrorist's acts could be admitted to court. However, this led to problems, including the fact that when the evidence was provided to the attorneys for the accused terrorists, it eventually found its way back to terrorists still active; blowing methods of gathering intelligence in the process. In many cases, the FBI had to keep a wall between its intelligence side and its criminal prosecution side (some have called it the "Gorelick wall" after the author of one memo that was made public outlining the procedures to be used). Since 9/11, the FBI has changed its tactics, the wall has come crashing down, and attacks have been thwarted, with support networks also being rolled up.

The FBI's new approach has been to break up the attacks beforehand - with criminal cases being of secondary importance. This allows the FBI to do things it was not able to do earlier, like go to into chat rooms where recruiting occurs. It also means the FBI operates on a lower threshold. It is very similar to the approach the federal government used against Al Capone. Ultimately, Capone never served a day in prison for bootlegging or murder - his prison sentence was for tax evasion. Today, the FBI operates mainly to just stop the terrorists. They may not get jail time for terrorism, but there are other charges that can be used (immigration laws are one set of laws) if need be. Even these will break up cells - simply because the terrorists are human, and will make mistakes or do something illegal. If they are in prison, they cannot carry out attacks.

A number of human rights and civil liberties groups are not happy about this. In situations like those involving the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, this has led to lawsuits and hostile media coverage. These groups have viewed the intelligence community with suspicion at best - often they are downright hostile, despite the fact that the cooperation between the FBI and the intelligence community has broken up several attacks.

In a very real sense, simply opening the lines of communication and being proactive has strengthened American defenses against terrorist attacks. This has received a lot of criticism, but there is one thing the critics are unable to deny: It has worked. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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