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How 9/11 led to critical ‘information sharing’ nationwide

"It's a constant challenge to make sure that we have those processes in place to ensure that everybody has access to the information they need to do their jobs,...

The anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks brings a unique and profound feeling to people who work within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of the attacks in order to unify the nation’s security efforts.

There were clues that something was being plotted before 9/11, but agencies across the government just couldn’t connect the dots in time.

“9/11 showed us that we had let our guard down,” said Ken Wainstein, under secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.

Wainstein said that no one ever thought “the unthinkable” could happen.

“Once we realized that we had not sufficiently prepared for that kind of threat, we all joined arms with the goal of preventing that from ever happening again,” said Wainstein.

The department built up the government’s intelligence collection capabilities and worked to strengthen information sharing at all levels to make sure that everyone involved in counterterrorism could play a role in helping to prevent future attacks.

“We saw a whole host of different initiatives and organizations focused on information sharing and coordination within the government,” Wainstein explained.

An information road block

There were a variety of reasons why the government’s information sharing practices were inadequate before 9/11.

For example, there were rules that stopped certain details from being exchanged between intelligence officials and the law enforcement community.

“There were cultural differences that prevented collaboration between parts of our government,” Wainstein said. “There was insufficient sharing of national security information from the federal government down to the state and local police departments and sheriff’s departments around the country.”

Essentially, there were road blocks in the way, preventing critical information from moving up and down the ranks through various agencies.

It created a system where people involved in fighting against terrorism were not talking to each other properly.

“Post-9/11, you have people working closely with every level of government from the president down to the mayor of the smallest town,” said Wainstein.

Now, when someone learns about information that’s relevant to a threat against the United States, that information is much more likely to be shared across the board.

That is one of the main lessons of 9/11.

“It’s a constant challenge to make sure that we have those processes in place to ensure that everybody has access to the information they need to do their jobs,” Wainstein said. “We have to keep our guard up and maintain our vigilance, and we have to keep an eye out for any indications of the hatching of a terrorist plot.”

United in protecting the nation

Eleven days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was appointed as the director of the Office of Homeland Security in the White House.

The office oversaw and coordinated a strategy to protect the country against terrorism and respond to any other potential attacks in the future.

With the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November 2002, the Department of Homeland Security formally came into being as a stand-alone department to further coordinate and unify homeland security efforts, opening its doors on March 1, 2003.

Since then, threats against the United States have evolved significantly.

Not only does the country continue to face international terrorism threats from groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS, but there is now a growing threat related to domestic violence and extremism that is much more serious than it once was.

There are also cyber threats, which have expanded exponentially as technology has become more advanced.

“What has remained constant is the toolkit that we need in government to meet all of these threats,” said Wainstein. “We must ensure that we have the intelligence capability to identify threats, analyze information and provide actionable intelligence to the folks on the street who will prevent those threats from becoming real attacks.”

The country has made considerable progress in detecting and preventing threats over the past 21 years.

A number of plots have been hatched and foiled.

“It’s impossible to say what attacks would have happened but for the actions of our different levels of government,” Wainstein said. “However, you have to assume that the changes implemented post-9/11 did go a long way toward preventing further 9/11-type attacks.”

And even though the nation has deep political divisions, those dedicated to homeland security efforts stand united.

“We are focused on one thing and one thing only, which is preventing the next threat against our homeland.” Wainstein said. “In some ways, that’s the best antidote to the divisiveness that you see out there these days.”

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