U.S. Counter-Terrorism: Better Now Than on 9/11?

The ten-year anniversary of 9/11 provides an excellent time to reflect on American counter-terrorism strategies, including where they were prior to that day and where methodology has changed since then. This article will briefly discuss the history of intelligence gathering before moving on to defense of the homeland in the United States, “the wall” between the FBI and the CIA prior to 9/11, the role of congressional oversight in these concerns and finally a critical area that many Directors of National Intelligence (DNI) have been trying to improve upon, human intelligence (HUMINT).

The Roles of the CIA and FBI

When one typically things of counter-terrorism in the United States today, they probably think of a number of organizations that have some connection to the counter-terror effort. Undoubtedly, some would name the important roles of both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Most however, would likely cite the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Both organizations have a long and storied history in the fight against the people, nations and organizations that would do the United States harm. John Deutch and Jeffrey H. Smith cite this exact point when they state that “the framework for U.S. intelligence was created in a different time to deal with different problems” (Deutch and Smith, p.1). This would include the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA act of 1947), an act that essentially transformed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) into what we now know as the CIA. This point is very important because it underscores the concept that the CIA was originally created not to fight terrorism, but instead to serve as an intelligence gathering apparatus against the USSR during the cold war.

At the same time, the NSA Act of 1947 was designed to recognize “the importance of protecting citizens’ rights”. As a result, up until 9/11, the CIA’s job was to collect and analyze “information in order to forewarn the government before an act occurs” with decisions on intelligence reform “revolving around the question of proper balance between national security and law enforcement goals”. This differentiates the CIA from the FBI in that the FBI’s mission has traditionally been to focus on collecting evidence “after a crime is committed in order to support prosecution in a court of law”. Traditionally, these distinctions have made it so that there has been a barrier of information between the FBI and the CIA. This previously intentional “wall” in intelligence sharing was exploited on September 11, 2001.

The Wall

“The wall”, as it is called, has been maintained so that intelligence gathering techniques used by the CIA would not be compromised and information vital to our country’s national security would not be exposed in a court of law, thus making it public to our enemies. It has traditionally proven to be a barrier in some of the FBI’s terrorism cases, including in the case against the Saudi charities Al-Haramain (AH), and Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), two charities found to have been giving money to jihadist conflicts in Chechnya and Pakistan, among others. These are investigations that were stymied during the period of “the wall” because of a lack of intelligence sharing between the FBI and the CIA. That all changed after 9/11, as many policies related to the sharing of intelligence gathering shifted to a more open, streamlined sense of communication between the two government agencies. Investigations into AH, and BIF were cracked wide open and positive solutions to the problems facing these charities’ funding of terrorism were resolved through actions not just taken by the FBI and the CIA, but also by high level officials in the Bush (43) Administration.

Saudi Arabia has since enacted stricter terrorist funding laws at the behest of the United States government, though it is unknown how effectively they are being enforced. Three central problems that have cropped up relatively recently are the fact that “the FBI and the intelligence communities have separate counter-terrorism centers”, that “decisions on intelligence reform will revolve around the question of the proper balance between national security and law enforcement goals” (Deutch and Smith, p.1), and the need for HUMINT.


Another party that plays a considerable part in this discussion is the United States Congress. The U.S. Congress structures its oversight of counter-terrorism policies in a very complicated fashion. To give one an idea about how thorough the congress is on this matter one should consider that the United States’ counter-terrorism policies are split up between the Department of State (State), the Department of Defense (DOD), several oversight committees on law enforcement and foreign policy, in addition to oversight of the intelligence community. Within each section there is a different committee. The oversight of each is listed below:

Senate foreign relations committee/ House international relations committee:

  • State Department

House armed services committee/Senate armed services committee:

  • Department of Defense

Senate select committee on intelligence/House permanent select committee on intelligence:

  • The Intelligence Community (CIA, DIA, etc.)

House judiciary committee/Senate judiciary committee:

  • ANY law enforcement matter concerning terrorism

For example, State has oversight of intel which has worked its way through the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, the DOD has oversight administered by the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. The intelligence community is overseen by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. As such, “oversight of law enforcement, foreign policy, and intelligence is largely undertaken by different sets of committees with disparate agendas” (Best, p.7). Along with these different agendas also come different sets of responsibilities. Consider that the law enforcement angle of the counter-terrorism effort is overseen by the judiciary committees of the House and Senate; the same committees have to deal with issues as wide-ranging as appointment of federal judges and abortion. The intelligence and armed services committees also have a responsibility to focus on “procurement of advanced technologies” as well as “links between intelligence and military services”, rather than only operational practices (Best, p.8). Add to that the myriad political agendas of individual congressional members including the factions in each party and one gets the idea that making policy goals fit reality as it concerns national security issues can be murky at times.

Because of this “there is no clear primacy for either the law enforcement or intelligence communities in the realms of international terrorism, narcotics, or proliferation (as well as, in some cases, counter-intelligence)” (Best, p.5). This is not to say that Congressional oversight is not needed; On the contrary, it is vital. What needs to be altered is not the system but the influence of the moneyed interests in the system. A more streamlined system without the moneyed interests would make creation of counter-terror policy, and coordination of information better; it would still be challenging at time, but far less daunting. Best makes this very point in stating that “[Coordination] sounds simple in concept. In reality it is likely to prove very difficult, challenging constitutional limits on domestic law” (Best, p. 5). This is reflecting concerns, such as the fact that American law prevents some of the evidence gained by the CIA from being admitted to the court of law. For example, if the CIA uses its various assets in order to gain overseas intelligence against an organization, it is not necessarily breaking the law there, but if the evidence were gained in a way that the American Constitution or federal statute would not permit in a US court of law, the FBI would have a difficult time using it in a way that complied with the law it is sworn to protect.

The Role of the FBI in foreign policy

Redundancies in CIA and FBI resources have proven to be a hurdle that the US counter-terrorism effort has yet to get beyond. Both the FBI and the CIA have “separate counter-terrorism centers” (Best, p.3). Beyond this, “the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the nation’s principal law enforcement agency, has attained a more prominent international role in recent years, assigning increased numbers of agents overseas to expand contacts with foreign governments, and to acquire information about potential transnational threats” (Best, p.5). While it should be applauded that more resources are spent defending the United States from a terrorist attack, it should also be noted that these resources need to be spent in a smarter fashion. Smarter intelligence would use the vast amount of resources that the United States expends on counter-terrorism efforts streamline the process, eliminating duplication and waste from the system. This capital could be utilized to establish a better system of developing domestic intelligence. This is not because the current system doesn’t work, but that the counter-terrorism tools used between the CIA and the FBI haven’t been as effective as the development of a single domestic intelligence agency such as the MI5 in Britain, CSIS in Canada, or ASIO in Australia has been. The FBI is known as an organization that investigates after a crime is committed, not a tool used to gather intelligence on a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) prior to an attack. Likewise, the CIA is good at gathering intelligence in other countries. Like MI6 in England they are very good at what they do; that said they are not designed to gather intelligence domestically.

The Gathering of HUMINT

This brings me to my last point. The United States needs to learn how to gather better human intelligence. When I think of the United States capabilities in gathering human intelligence, one example that comes to mind is Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, also known as the infamous “curveball”. Al-Janabi is the informant who fed the United States intelligence that was used in the unilateral invasion of Iraq. Amongst his information was the idea that Iraq had mobile production facilities for biological agents, and the fact that Iraq still had WMD capacity (a fact that UN Weapons inspector Scott Ritter, wholly denounced). The United States believed Al-Janabi above other sources and as well all know went into Iraq, only to find that this single source of HUMINT was inaccurate.

This is not to say that there haven’t been cases where the United States has been correct in the area of HUMINT, just that the system can and should improve. This has been the goal of “all DCI’s” (Best, p.3) (Directors of Central Intelligence). Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that “human intelligence collection is not a silver bullet that can be separated from other intelligence activities and improved overnight”. It will take time and effort to “build a team of experts who understands the language, culture, politics, society, and economic circumstances surrounding terrorist groups…[ including] a thorough understanding of the sources of terrorism” (Best, p.4). It is with this then that we should work together with our allies in the UK, Canada, Australia, and France to develop a better system.  


The United States built its intelligence apparatus at a time when we were fighting a different kind of enemy, the USSR. It was a very effective tool at combating this enemy. However, today the enemy is different. It is decentralized, diffuse, and mobile. As such it is important that the United States adapts to the enemy it is facing. Policies initiated during the Bush Administration are a start. Transforming the FBI and CIA or broadening their powers will not work. What will work is a domestic intelligence agency with no arresting power specifically designed to gather intelligence, and put together a HUMINT system. This is the same idea that has worked in England, Canada, France, and Australia. While this idea is not without its own faults it is a good solution to the problem. Beginning with the elimination of redundant services, investment in smarter intelligence, the establishment of a single domestic intelligence agency and a thorough consultation with our allies for the development of better HUMINT will allow the United States to adapt to this new era in counter-terrorism.

About jakeeyremdy

A recent graduate from Norwich University with his Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Jake discusses a wide variety of topics centrally related to international diplomacy, international law, international terrorism studies, and other such topics

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