Originally published in The Ripon Society
On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists executed a horrific plan to hijack aircraft and turn them into guided missiles that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and killed approximately 3,000 people. In carrying out their plot, the terrorists exploited vulnerabilities or gaps in several security systems that were intended to protect our borders and our aviation system. Among these weaknesses were the lack of a sufficient program to collect and analyze information about foreign travelers coming to the U.S.; insecure identification requirements for passengers boarding flights domestically; a largely privatized passenger and baggage screening process at the airports; and, no real security on board the aircraft itself.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States worked tirelessly to confront the new reality that our country faced. The most noticeable and consequential investments included enhanced screening of people and cargo traveling into the U.S. by air, sea, rail, and land. We also made successful improvements in our ability to share information across law enforcement agencies. The Department of Homeland Security implemented the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Initiative which improved how local, national, and international agencies share information. Proof of the enhancements in our information sharing capabilities is evident in the 2006 thwarted plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard airliners bound for the United States and Canada from Great Britain. By working closely with our overseas counterparts and the joint cooperation of U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the threat, a large-scale attack was foiled, and hundreds of lives were saved.
The 9/11 Commission report allowed for a bipartisan examination of the failures that contributed to the execution of the most devastating act of terrorism our country has ever seen.
During the past decade the U.S. remained largely focused on the threat posed to our homeland by global terrorism and the coordination of large-scale attacks by Jihadists. However, in recent years a newer threat has emerged, that of domestic terrorism. These attacks are perpetrated by our own citizens with a desire to inflict major harm. In its October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment, the Department of Homeland Security stated that Ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups pose the most likely terrorist threat to the Homeland, with Domestic Violent Extremists presenting the most persistent and lethal threat. There is no clearer manifestation of this threat than the events that unfolded on January 6th. Led by paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and communicating by way of encrypted messaging, they launched an attack on the U.S. Capitol and the very foundation of our nations democracy. But the question we must ask ourselves is how did we get to this place and what precipitated a mobs attempt to overthrow the results of a Presidential election?
The seeds of January 6th grew out of a prolific spread of disinformation. In 2020, Americans grappled with the public health crisis of COVID-19, civil unrest not seen since the 1960s, and a contested presidential election. Surrounding all these events was the spread of untruths on the airwaves and online. Millions of Americans were daily consumers of conspiracy theories and lies culminating in a call to the United States Capitol on January 6th to right a series of perceived wrongs, the greatest of them being that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. Significantly, some of our elected officials have exploited this disinformation to promote distrust of our political institutions, thus undermining our unity.
I call on our elected officials to support the January 6th Commission with the same unity and sense of purpose that was present in the aftermath of 9/11.
The 9/11 Commission report allowed for a bipartisan examination of the failures that contributed to the execution of the most devastating act of terrorism our country has ever seen. It also paved the way for many reforms that undoubtedly saved lives, streamlined intelligence gathering and sharing, and kept America safe from another attack of proportionate scale. In stark contrast, the January 6th Commission has lacked bipartisan support from the outset, has been besieged by political infighting, and most recently has seen threats from lawmakers against telecom and social media corporations that cooperate with the investigation. I call on our elected officials to support the January 6th Commission with the same unity and sense of purpose that was present in the aftermath of 9/11. Without a definitive account of what occurred, trust in our government is further eroded and were more likely to see a repeat of what transpired.
The vast majority of domestic terrorists in recent memory have used the internet to consume and post their extremist views and connect with a network that shares their ideology. Effective utilization of open-source intelligence will increase our ability to circumvent a planned attack as well as study the online behavior of anyone that espouses hateful philosophies. We need to do a better job of working with social media companies to detect and handle extremist content while also remaining cognizant of foreign actors that further spread disinformation through online platforms.
We also need to empower the Department of Homeland Security to work with fusion centers around the country on how to conduct thorough intelligence analysis. State and local agencies are our first line of defense against domestic extremists. In addition, we need a streamlined mechanism for state and local agencies to escalate suspicious activity.
But let me emphasize that as we secure our nation against domestic extremist violence, we must not ignore the continuing threat of international terrorism. Our departure from Afghanistan may embolden groups like ISIS-K or al-Qaeda. Thus, we must continue to maintain and upgrade our foreign intelligence collection capabilities and our border and infrastructure security. We do not have the luxury of contending with only one threat at a time. As President Biden has made clear, however, we have the will and determination to defend against all these threats.