Skip Navigation

Strength, Security, and Shared Responsibility: Preventing Terrorist Attacks a Decade after 9/11

The Brennan Center for Justice and NYU School of Law hosted Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on June 7th for a discussion on post-9/11 homeland security.

June 8, 2011

Well, thank you, and it is a pleasure to be back here and back in New York City, back at the Brennan Center and at NYU to talk about where we stand and to talk about some of the issues confronting homeland security now, almost ten years after the attack of 9/11. Thank you, Dean, for that kind introduction. Thank you, Michael, for allowing me to come back. I appreciate that. And thank you all for being here this evening. Now, since the beginning of this year, I have been speaking across the country at various universities and colleges about homeland security because it is a new and ever-evolving field. And it is one that, as the Dean mentioned, covers a range of topics.

If you look at the Department of Homeland Security, as it was created by the Congress after the attacks of 9/11, its responsibilities range from counter-terrorism to securing our borders, meaning air, land and sea to immigration enforcement, a very non-controversial area, to cyber security, which is a fast growing area, more and more important each day, to disaster response and recovery.

Whatever the source of the disaster is – a terrorist attack, another man caused disaster, or indeed Mother Nature. So for example right now we are responding to federally declared disasters in 28 different states, a remarkable and unfortunately record setting spring for tornados and flooding across our country. So we have a vast range of responsibilities but the priority for the Department was, is, and will remain the counter-terrorism issue. How do we protect the people of the United States from being the victim of an attack again? And how do we do that in a way that respects and embraces our own rights and liberties, values that undergird our country and that we are sworn to as attorneys, and as members of the Cabinet, that we are sworn to uphold.

So I want to talk to you about that facet of our work, the counter-terrorism facet. And I want to speak with you in that vein as a member of the Cabinet, not as a student or faculty member or other but somebody who is dealing with these issues on a daily, day in and day out, basis. Because I believe that right now is an opportune time, an opportune time to discuss the ongoing threats that our nation still faces because right now we are between two focusing events. One of course is the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the other is the upcoming ten year anniversary of 9\11. What we learned from the Osama Bin Laden operation confirms what I think many in this hall knew or suspected for a long time. And that is that Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain determined to target the West, particularly the United States both here and through our interests abroad.

And so as we move forward over the coming months to commemorate what happened on 9\11 and share again the remarkable stories of the men and women who perished in the attacks here and at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. As we detail the progress the country has indeed made over the past years. We have to also recommit ourselves to the notion that unfortunately the world that we inhabit is a world, an environment where terrorists exist and where they continue to focus upon the West and on the United States.

Now, where are we now in relation to where we stood say on 9\11 or shortly before? I am confident in saying that our country is stronger than we were a decade ago. We have indeed bounced back from the worst attacks ever on our soil. And we have made significant progress in many fronts needed to protect ourselves. I think as well that our nation is smarter about the threats that we face and how best to deal with them. We have used this knowledge to make ourselves more resilient and not just to terrorist attacks but to threats and disasters of all kinds. And by resilience I want to pause here a moment. By resilience what I mean is the capacity to bounce back quickly after a crisis, like we saw at Ground Zero and at the New York Stock Exchange which reopened just four trading days after the attack.

Now with investments that have been made in capacity building across our country, working with first responders, working with state and local authorities, we have seen remarkable abilities at the state and local level to show resilience from right now Mother Nature. So when you think about what’s going on in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Missouri, the ability to bounce back from those storms has been enhanced in part by the efforts we actually invested in to fight terrorism, or to come back from terrorism, but that in fact allow us to respond better, more quickly, more effectively to a disaster, whatever the source.

But let me go back to my major point which is that the threats of terrorism are still here. They’re not going away. They’re real and they are rapidly evolving. They demand our vigilance and they demand our willingness to learn and to adapt. So perhaps at no other time in our recent history this point between when the attacks of 9\11 occurred and when we will commemorate the 10th anniversary is the time to say that we have to rethink how we deal with terrorism and understand that one of the evolutions we have made is to say that counter terrorism is not just a governmental function, it’s not just a federal governmental function. It involves states, in involves local law enforcement, it involves first responders, it involves the private sector, it involves individual citizens, and it involves a sense of shared responsibility that we as a country are all in this together. And that while different parts of us leverage different types of strengthens and abilities the plain fact of the matter is that everyone has a stake in the safety of our people.

So as we move forward we look back on the last 10 years and note as was noted in the introduction, that I now lead the 3rd largest Department of the Federal Government. It is part of the largest reorganization of the Federal Government that has taken place in our nation’s history that we have reoriented not just the agencies within DHS but also within the Department of Justice and also the FBI toward the prevention of terrorist acts. And that we have invested tremendous energy and resources in our country to assimilate the knowledge we have gained, and to use it, and this is a key point, to use what we have learned and to share it to inform and empower a broader, more inclusive range of people and institutions to become a part of the homeland security architecture of our country. So as we move forward, that architecture, that sense of shared responsibility is a guiding philosophy of having how we proceed.

So let me turn to the nature of the threats that we are currently facing. Because the terrorist threat confronting the United States right now has evolved significantly over what it was 10 years ago. Today in addition to the direct threats we continue to face from Al Qaeda or Core Al Qaeda as it’s known. We also face growing threats from other foreign-based terrorist groups inspired by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-like ideology. They many have few operational connections to Al Qaeda but they certainly are inspired by Al Qaeda.

And indeed we face a threat environment where violent extremism is neither restrained by international boarders nor limited to any single ideology. One of the most striking evolutions we have seen recently – and indeed we’ve seen this accelerate even during my two and a half years as the Secretary – is that plots to attack the United States increasingly involve U.S. persons, United States persons, American citizens. Based on the latest intelligence and law enforcement actions we now operate on the assumption that individuals prepared to carry out terrorist attacks may be in the United States now and can carry out acts of violence with little or no warning.

So we have been dealing with an increasingly diffuse source of terrorism and an increasingly smaller, if I were, smaller methodology of attack. What do I mean by that? The big plot, the big conspiracies that involve years, and years, and years to develop, to get people in the country, to train them in flight schools, to be able to weaponize commercial air carriers, those kinds of plots are not the kinds of plots we see now. What we see now are more diffuse, smaller, and quicker to happen. They can involve a single person and of course as we know it is very, very difficult to if not impossible to stop a single person if there is no one with whom that person is communicating, sharing information, plans or thoughts. Because there is nothing at that point to interrupt until something actually occurs.

And so as we move forward we believe that the increasingly savvy use of the internet, mainstream and social media, and information technology by groups like Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-related groups to inspire those who either live abroad or actually live in our county now has added an additional layer of complexity to the problem of terrorism that existed prior to 9\11. And we should be very clear that now there is no single portrait of a would-be terrorist. Research and experience has shown that an individual or group’s ethnic, religious or cultural background does not explain why a small number of individuals choose to take their radical beliefs down a violent path.

So we have no interest in policing beliefs, or in profiling of any sort based on factors like religion or ethnicity. Why? Because not only are those practices illegal, they’re also ineffective. That’s why we need to be instead, working with a broad range of partners to gain a better understanding of the behaviors, the tactics, the techniques, the other indicators that could point to anticipated terrorist activity and the best ways to mitigate or prevent that activity from being successful.

So if you think about the nature of the evolving threat, what has changed, what we need to be focused on in our efforts to prevent something from being successful, that bears with it then some implications. The fact that new kinds of threats can come from any direction and with little warning upends much of our thinking about terrorism prevention. And that thinking then has changed not just from a decade ago but from a few years ago. It doesn’t mean that we still don’t need a strong military or top notch intelligence operation, the very kind that was used to kill Bin Laden.

Nor does it mean that we focus only on the domestic. Indeed there is an absolutely international aspect to much of what we do in Homeland Security. Because when we look at the tactics and techniques that could be used to wage an attack we have to be thinking about aviation. Might not be able to weaponize a plane the way one did one did on 9\11 but what about smuggling PETN in your underwear onto a plane when you board it in Nigeria and change planes in Amsterdam and fly over Canadian airspace to get to the United States, so aviation.

Supply chains security. I was speaking about that earlier today. What do I mean by that? I mean the movement of goods and commerce around the world, often times is a possible avenue for attack. Witness for example the attempted toner cartridge bombs out of Yemen just this past October, also international in nature. Information sharing about terrorism, human trafficking, science and technology and the things that we are learning to better find, detect, sense, mitigate against possible attacks all have an international dimension to them.

So as we talk about the evolving threat, one of the implications for our nature is to recognize that even when you have something called the Department of Homeland Security it’s actually international in context. We are currently working in 75 countries. We have the third largest international footprint of any Federal Department. I’ve traveled in my two and a half years as Secretary to 20 countries, several of them multiple times. So what we do need to do is recognize that with the ever evolving nature of the threats confronting us, we have to get to a place where every part of our society is cognizant of the kinds of threats that are out there and empowered to take some common sense steps to help counter them.

So how do we do that? First of all, we try to reduce some of what I’ve just spoken about to a short phrase, and the short phrase that I want you to walk out of here with, there are going to be two, this is the first one. And the first one is that Homeland Security begins with home town security. That all of us are now stakeholders in the effort to keep families and communities, our businesses, our social networks, our places of worship, secure and resilient. So what does that mean? It means we have to have a distributed sense about homeland security. And how does that take affect? What are some of the indicators of that?

Well there are four key parts of that distributed architecture. One, we now have 72 fusion centers throughout the United States. A fusion center is a place where local, state, federal, occasionally tribal and territorial, depending on where you are, are co-located so that information can be gathered, analyzed and shared at the local level and looked at through the prism of all of the eyes and ears that state and local law enforcement possess. Second, we’ve greatly explained something called the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative or SAR. SAR is an initiative that trains state and local law enforcement to recognize behaviors and indicators related to terrorism and other threats, and standardizes how those observations are documented analyzed and shared back to the Department of Homeland Security, back to the FBI and shared. At that point then can be taken and converted into products that can be re-shared throughout the rest of the United States.

So that from an Intel sharing side we’re not just talking about Intel moving from DC to the country. We’re now talking about the analytic capacity to bring intelligence from the rest of the country back into Washington DC. Third aspect of how we are empowering people is the launch of the new National Terrorism Advisory System which we just recently did in April. The NTAS.

The NTAS is the replacement for the old color code system. Say goodbye to orange. We are not using that system anymore. Why? Because it didn’t give people information, it didn’t give businesses or the private sector information; it didn’t give state and local law enforcement information. If you walked into an airport, airports have been at the level orange, I think since the year 2006. And so rather than have a color code system that nobody paid attention to, except maybe Jay Leno or David Letterman, but instead of that to have a system where we presume that at the base level of risk to our country now incorporates ongoing risk.

So our base level is higher than it was prior to 9\11. So we assume that in our base level. And then if there is specific or credible info about a threat, that base level can be elevated or in certain circumstances described as imminent. And when we do that, that warning can be limited by geography, could be limited by sector, could be limited in any number of ways. And importantly under the system any warning given expires on its own after two weeks, unless the review of the intelligence suggests that it be continued.

That’s important for a very practical reason, which is once someone raises a threat level it is very difficult to take an intentional act to bring it down. So what you have then is just an ever increasing pile of levels and people don’t pay attention anymore. So the whole idea is to have a system that communicates information, that people pay attention to and that is relevant to people’s real time situations. And finally the fourth element of the shared responsibility aspect of things, is that “If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign. I told you that Homeland Security begins with home town security was one phrase I wanted you to remember. See Something Say Something will be the second phrase that I want you to walk out of here and to remember.

It’s a simple and effective public awareness program. It actually began here in New York with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the whole purpose is so that people will be alert, not alarmed. And so they know that if they see something untoward, unusual that they should report it to the appropriate authorities so it can be dealt with. We’ve seen very good response to See Something, Say Something, and we’ve expanded it to Federal Buildings across the United States to major transit systems like Amtrak, to sports and entertainment venues, and we often have to think about the so called, soft targets, to the hotel industry.

So when you add those four together, the fusion centers, SARS, the new warning systems, See Something Say Something, each of these four elements learn from and build on each other and they help us in any number of ways. So to carry them out we have trained nearly 50,000 law enforcement personnel on SARS we have worked with hundreds of communities and local organizations on how to incorporate lessons learned. We have implemented lots of new training and we are doing all of this, and at the same time incorporating in everything we do, and I think that it’s important to say it again, the importance of protecting privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.

Because as Michael said in the first intro of the introducer to me, there is a false dichotomy if you have to say we have to sacrifice liberty for security. We don’t, we just have to think about them at the same time and look for common sense and pragmatic ways to make sure that both are being pursued. Now as we have worked across the country I think that we’ve become not just stronger, I think we’ve become bit smarter. We learn from every incident, we learn from what has been done in different states, different locals.

The New York state Intel center in Albany is a good example. The New Vigilance Project is another, an analytic and historic catalog of terrorism cases since 9/11, which we can now share across the country. We know that we have now better equipped our states and localities around the United States. We know that we are beginning to hear some of the things I’ve been saying echoed back to us. Always a sign that the message is being received. Now let me, if I might, talk about shared responsibility from an individual standpoint.

We have continually recognized the role the public plays. According to one recent outside analysis, from 1999 through 2010, there were a total of 74 plots properly characterized as terrorist, and I realize there are definitional issues there, but in this study, properly characterized as terrorist. There were a total of 74 plots foiled. They were motivated by a variety of ideologies, Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda type affiliates, representing about half. But what is most critical to note and does not get the attention it deserves, is that the public, individual members of the public stopped one-third of those plots. In other words, the kind of vigilance we are encouraging, through something like the See Something, Say Something campaign, has already helped save lives, protect property, helped thwart plots in nearly 3 of 10 discovered since 1999.

And when you add the fact that federal, state and local law enforcement, in terms of the other remaining plots, came from old-fashioned shoe leather, old-fashioned police work, and community oriented policing and knowing neighborhoods and knowing what makes sense and what doesn’t. Those two things combined together are at least 80 percent of the plots that have been foiled. So vigilance expressed by individuals, vigilance as practiced by trained first responders and law enforcement makes a huge difference. But for us to be informed means that we also need to engage in regular discussion, as a community, as a concerned nation.

To discuss and know about, what are the recruiting tactics that are being used? And to know that our adversaries are increasingly relying on glossy, English-speaking magazines, appeals by social media, even hip-hop videos, if you can imagine that. And we have seen an increasing sophistication of threats from cyberspace, including using major news events or natural disasters to target unsuspecting users with scams and malicious code. And so, while a sense of awareness is important, we all have to be willing to keep moving, keep learning and to do a bit more.

We can learn more about the signs or indicators of potential criminal or terrorist acts and to say something to the proper authorities. It was a street vendor, after all, who last year tipped off the police to the Times Square bombing attempt. In January, it was alert city workers in Spokane, Washington, who reported a suspicious backpack and thwarted what almost certainly would have been a deadly bombing along that city’s MLK parade route. We can practice better cyber habits whenever we are online, but also make sure that our children are practicing safe cyber habits.

And that we are cognizant of what they are doing online. This is especially relevant in the wake of several breaches and phishing attacks that recently targeted the American public. And we could all take the basic steps necessary to know how to deal with an emergency when it happens. There was a lot of experiences these last few weeks with communication systems totally going out because of tornadoes. People couldn’t call each other on their cell phones. There was no way to do it. They couldn’t know whether a family member had survived, or not survived. Those families who had reunification plan, who had thought through ahead of time, where the children were supposed to go, where they would all congregate, if something were to occur were in good shape. The others had hours, and, in some cases, days of worry trying to locate their loved ones.

So those kinds of efforts which sound so basic and almost to be too simple, but they’re not. Why? Because what we’re talking about is making sure that across this country every single person is incorporating and understanding the role that they play. And that’s a big challenge for us. We’re used to, in many respects, not listening to these types of efforts, when, in fact, we need to be listening and empowering more. We are still a young department. But we’re old enough to know what works and what doesn’t work. And what we know really works is when people are not relying on one Federal Department to do all of the work and address all of the challenges.

So finally, if I might, let me close with the notion that what I have suggested to you today about the evolving nature of the threat you may have heard some about. Although I’m not sure people in this auditorium perhaps recognize how quickly the threat is evolving. But none the less, it’s there. You perhaps have heard about some of these things we are doing but perhaps had not put them into a total framework of steps that interact with each other to help us strengthen our Homeland Security Architecture. And perhaps you have not really thought about the role that each of you plays. For decades we have looked to civil defense and neighborhood watch programs to be elements of our own protection.

We’ve accommodated to new threats as threats have changed. When we were in the midst of the Cold War, we all knew where the closest fall-out shelter was and we learned to hide under our desks. We learned to keep children indoors during polio epidemics. Some of these things worked, some of them kind of sound silly, in retrospect. But I’ve got to tell you, right now, we need as a country to keep adapting, to think ahead, to be nimble and to be adaptive as individuals, as communities and as a nation. We have made great strides, but, even given that, we cannot provide guarantees. And while all the things I’ve discussed with you today are steps forward, we will never put this country under a kind of a glass dome and seal it against all threats, whatever the threat’s origination. We know that we have to deal with risks. We have to maximize our ability to prevent something untoward from happening. We have to minimize the disruption that a successful attack could cause.

We have to, on the one hand, be proactive and thoughtful, thinking always what could be around the next corner. And on the other hand, have confidence that we have built in our communities the ability to respond and to respond quickly, to come back. And it’s with that kind of confidence that we proceed. Our greatest source of strength and our greatest sense of security will always, ultimately, rest not with any machinery, not with any technology, not with any one Federal Department but it’s always, indeed, it’s going to rest, fundamentally, on the citizens of our country. And we have to make sure they re-engage. They re-engage in the ways I have described and perhaps, others as well. And that will be a fitting way to commemorate the upcoming ten-year anniversary of 9/11. Thank you.