9/11 Commission’s ’10 Years Later’ Report: The Only Problem With US Counterterrorism Efforts Is The General Public

from the 9/11-hereafter-to-be-referred-to-as-'Dependence-Day' dept
9/11 Commission's '10 Years Later' Report: The Only Problem With US Counterterrorism Efforts Is The General Public

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

by Tim Cushing | Tech Dirt | July 25, 2014


The 9/11 Commission has released a followup to its original report, detailing the government’s activity in response over the past decade. Unfortunately, those who feel the 9/11 attacks ushered in a new era of government overreach and diminished civil liberties will be hard-pressed to see anything encouraging in this report’s concerns and recommendations.

Some of the Commission’s findings are unsurprising. Yes, terrorist groups and tactics have evolved since 9/11 and yes, the government’s counterterrorism efforts seem largely focused on preventing stuff that already happened (this being the TSA’s particular area of “expertise”). But the report also warns that our efforts to prevent terrorist attacks are in danger of faltering due to “fatigue” and a “waning sense of urgency,” while failing to point out that the government itself is largely to blame.

Many Americans think that the terrorist threat is waning—that, as a country, we can begin turning back to other concerns. They are wrong. The absence of another major attack on the homeland is a success in itself but does not mean that the terrorist threat has diminished. The threat remains grave, and the trend lines in many parts of the world are pointing in the wrong direction. We cannot afford to be complacent—vigorous counterterrorism efforts are as important as ever. Without public support, the government will not be able to sustain the robust capabilities and policies needed to keep Americans safe.

The government has repeatedly attempted to portray the nation as being under the constant threat of attack. While there are certainly threats out there, the danger posed has been overstated — and the Commission echoing this only makes it worse. This “fatigue” will only intensify if the Commission’s suggestions are acted on. To date, the NSA has been unable to point to much evidence that its broad collection efforts have actually reduced the terrorist threat, much less prevented any attacks. The FBI, whose main focus shifted to counterterrorism shortly after 2001, has been even worse. The terrorist plots “disrupted” by the investigative agency have almost exclusively been handcrafted by the FBI itself.

The Commission’s “one page summary” (which in true bureaucratic fashion is actually two pages) is a good place to start to get some idea of how many bad ideas are espoused in the 40+ page report, like calling for CISPA/CISA-esque legislation, giving the government even more access to private companies’ data in the name of fighting cyberterrorism.

Congress should enact cybersecurity legislation to enable private companies to collaborate with the government in countering cyber threats. Companies should be able to share cyber threat information with the government without fear of liability. Congress should also consider granting private companies legal authority to take direct action in response to attacks on their networks.

Other suggestions aren’t nearly as bad. For one, the Commission suggests an overhaul of DHS oversight, something that is currently handled (in one way or another) by 92 committees and subcommittees. It also encourages more transparency, something the two administrations involved in the post-9/11 “War on Terror” have thoroughly avoided.

The National Archives and the administration should work expeditiously to make all remaining 9/11 Commission records available to the public.

National security leaders must communicate to the public—in specific terms—what the state of the threat is, how the threat is evolving, and what measures are being taken to address it.

But when the Commission begins discussing what it finds the US has handled well post 9/11, the wheels start to come off. Dubious statistics are deployed to portray the terrorist threat as constant and growing. The number of people currently on the government’s “no-fly list” is presented without the faintest trace of incredulity, as if “20k+” splashed in bold, colorful text actually means the TSA is keeping 20,000 dangerous individuals from entering US airspace.

The report also cites the State Dept.’s statistics showing that terrorist attacks around the world increased 43% from 2012 to 2013. While it acknowledges this increase was almost completely relegated to regions where terrorist attacks have always been common (Pakistan, Iraq, etc.), the Commission goes on to claim this doesn’t indicate a decreased threat to the US and cites in support… attacks in Libya and Kenya. While there’s no doubt certain terrorists still harbor plenty of enmity towards the US, the likelihood of them succeeding in an attack on American soil still remains where it was on Sept. 10, 2011, Sept. 11, 2001 and every day since then: exceedingly minimal.

The report takes a turn for the ridiculous when discussing cyberattacks, going from warning against complacency and inadequate national security measures to praising the US for its highly symbolic, hypocritical and politically dangerous indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking US companies’ computers.

The Department of Justice’s May 2014 indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking into the systems of large American companies has helped bring attention to this problem, but the American people remain largely unaware of the magnitude of the cyber threat. That needs to change. Senior leaders in the executive branch and Congress must describe to the American people, in terms as specific as possible, the nature of the threat and the tools they need to combat it.

Things go to completely absurd in the next sentence, which attempts to bring the cyberwar home by quoting copyright industry talking points.

Former NSA Director General Keith Alexander has described the ongoing cyber theft of American companies’ intellectual property (IP) as “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” According to the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, the annual losses from IP theft are over $300 billion—approximately the amount of U.S. exports to Asia. This ongoing plunder will harm American competitiveness, depress job creation, and ultimately reduce the U.S. standard of living.

Elsewhere, the Commission congratulates the TSA on a job well done, never acknowledging the fact that the agency’s efforts are largely useless and mainly focused on reacting to the last threat that escaped their pre-boarding processes. (Shoe bomber, eh? Everyone start taking your shoes off!, etc.)

Senior leaders agree that America’s layered approach to homeland defense, which recognizes that no single security measure is foolproof, has improved our security. Each layer is effective in its own right, and each is supported by other layers of security. The system begins with intelligence gathered overseas and at home about individuals and organizations who may intend to do us harm. It includes screening systems that prevent suspects from boarding planes or entering the country via other means. At its best, a layered system integrates the capabilities of federal, state, and local government agencies.

More bizarrely, the same Commission that pointed out that the failure to share data between agencies allowed the 9/11 terrorists to reenter the country undetected now praises the “response” to the Boston Bombing as an example of “learning the lessons” of 9/11. The Commission glosses over the fact that the same sort of mistakes were made (info not passed along to other agencies, certain intel ignored) that could have prevented the attack.

America’s resilience has improved as well. Federal, state, and local authorities have absorbed and applied the lessons of 9/11 over the last decade. For example, joint federal, state, and local exercises staged in Boston over the last several years paid dividends in the well-executed response to the Boston Marathon bombings. Years of investment and planning helped ensure that the consequences of a terrible tragedy were dealt with in a controlled and systematic way.

The Commission also plays directly into the intelligence/national security narrative in its choice of language. While pressing for greater transparency and a larger emphasis on safeguarding civil liberties (in hopes of bringing Americans “back on board” with expensive, invasive counterterrorism efforts), the Commission poisons the well with these sentences.

Since 2004, when we issued the report, the public has become markedly more engaged in the debate over the balance between civil liberties and national security. In the mid-2000s, news reports about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs caused only a slight public stir. That changed with last year’s leaks by Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who stole 1.7 million pages of classified material. Documents taken by Snowden and given to the media revealed NSA data collection far more widespread than had been popularly understood. Some reports exaggerated the scale of the programs. While the government explained that the NSA’s programs were overseen by Congress and the courts, the scale of the data collection has alarmed the public.

With this tone established, the Commission calls for greater oversight of the NSA, which it does need. But its brief nod towards protecting civil liberties doesn’t even rise to the level of lip service. The Commission seems to feel that if the NSA/administration just talk about surveillance programs more openly, the American public will be more receptive. In summary: Americans just need to be told why their civil liberties are being violated and they’ll be cool with it.

Senior leaders must now make this case to the public. The President must lead the government in an ongoing effort to explain to the American people—in specific terms, not generalities—why these programs are critical to the nation’s security. If the American people hear what we have heard in recent months, about the urgent threat and the ways in which data collection is used to counter it, we believe that they will be supportive. If these programs are as important as we believe they are, it is worth making the effort to build a more solid foundation in public opinion to ensure their preservation.

More transparency and specificity would be appreciated, but a “discussion” on national security isn’t one small but powerful group telling everyone else how it’s going to be, no matter how many details are included.

There are many more troubling assertions and suggestions scattered throughout the report. The Commission revisits the TSA, again praising the no-fly list and making a blatantly false statement in its defense.

Before September 11, there were only 16 names on the no-fly list. Today, there are more than 1,000 times that many, along with a redress process to correct mistakes.

Bigger isn’t always better and the redress process is such a joke that a judge has declared it to be unconstitutional. The Commission also calls for faster implementation of REAL ID and biometric databases. So much for the civil liberties concerns, apparently.

With the REAL ID Act gradually being implemented by the states, the country is poised to fulfill our recommendation that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses.” But another key recommendation, a biometric exit-tracking system, has still not been implemented, and there is no end in sight.

In total, the Commission’s report is everything the DHS/NSA/FBI, etc. could have hoped for. It calls for more of the same, only faster, harder and with bigger budgets. Very little of what has sprung in place as the result of hasty post-attack legislation is questioned. The ongoing farce that is the TSA is given a solid thumbs-up. The only problem with the DHS is that it answers to too many masters. The major problem, it seems, is that the American public isn’t nearly as comfortable with a no-rules, by-any-means-necessary “War on Terror” as it was in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The Commission believes the only thing really missing is a governmental voice persuasive enough to talk the public out of its civil liberties in exchange for some shiny “safety” baubles.

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