Last week, the FBI, along with its state and local counterparts,
announced arrests in three terror plots targeting several American
cities. These foiled plots now make 26 publicly known terror plots
that have been disrupted by law enforcement since September 11,
These foiled plots demonstrate just how far information sharing
has come since 9/11. But the plots also demonstrate that the threat
of terrorism has not diminished. Congress and the Obama
Administration should recognize these threats as a reminder that
they must work together to facilitate information sharing from the
bottom to the top--integrating local, state, and federal entities
as well as the private sector into a well-functioning and seamless
homeland security enterprise.
Three Plots Disrupted
During the week of September 21, the FBI along with respective
state and local law enforcement announced the disruption of three
terror plots, including the arrests of the three following men:
- Najibullah Zazi. Zazi, a 24-year-old Afghani,
was arrested after purchasing large quantities of chemicals used to
make a TATP bomb, the same type of weapon used in the 2005 bombing
of the London Underground and the 2001 "shoe bomb" plot. Zazi had
traveled to Pakistan, where he received instruction in bomb making
and attended an al-Qaeda training camp. Zazi allegedly planned to
detonate TATP bombs on the New York City subway.
- Hosam Maher Husein Smadi. Smadi, a 19-year-old
Jordanian, was apprehended last week in an attempt to plant a bomb
in a Dallas skyscraper. He was arrested and charged after agents
posing as terror cell members gave Smadi a fake bomb, which he
later attempted to detonate.
- Michael Finton. Finton, an American citizen,
was arrested on September 23 by undercover FBI agents after
attempting to detonate a car bomb filled with what he believed to
be close to one ton of explosives outside of the Paul Findley
Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Springfield, Illinois.
Evidence presented against Finton has shown that he expressed a
desire to become a jihadist fighter and was aware that his planned
attack would cause civilian injuries. He has been arrested on
charges of attempted murder of federal employees and attempted use
of a weapon of mass destruction.
The Right Tools
These three plots should remind Congress and the White House of
just how far law enforcement has come since 2001. After the attacks
of 9/11, it was clear that changes were needed to give law
enforcement authorities more flexibility to conduct investigations
and share information. Walls that separated the U.S. government
from its allies, the FBI from state and local law enforcement, and
law enforcement from the private sector and private citizens needed
to be dissolved in order to effectively fight terrorism.
The U.S. addressed these needs by creating the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) and developing terror-fighting legal and
investigatory tools like the PATRIOT Act and an expanded Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to help identify, prosecute,
and convict terrorists.
The government is also looking to its allies to increase
collective security around the globe through assistance programs
and information-sharing agreements like the Visa Waiver Program
(VWP). And the DHS, born in the aftermath of 9/11, continues to
emphasize the need for law enforcement partnerships from the
grassroots level on up. These relationships, like the Joint
Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), have helped disrupt the flow of money
and resources. In fact, the New York City bombed plot foiled this
week was a result of an investigation coordinated by a JTTF.
A Long War
While Congress and the Bush Administration may have started
increasing America's counterterrorism abilities, maintaining the
ability to stop terrorism requires diligence, cultivation, and
maintenance by Congress and the White House.
President Barack Obama pledged that his Administration would
continue to increase U.S. capacity and international partnerships
to track down, capture, and kill terrorists around the world.
Congress and the Obama Administration can work together to fulfill
this promise by:
- Preserving the PATRIOT Act. Reauthorization of
key provisions of the PATRIOT Act and FISA will require
congressional support. FISA authorizes electronic surveillance
within certain legal limits, while the PATRIOT Act facilitates
cooperation among federal, state, and local agencies in information
sharing and terrorism investigations. It also establishes
mechanisms for conducting surveillance with modern technologies.
But key provisions of the PATRIOT Act expire this year, and
Congress will need to demonstrate its support by providing prompt
- Expanding the VWP. VWP allows pre-approved
travelers from member countries to visit the U.S. for 90 days
without a visa. Since the program underwent extensive security
upgrades in 2007, it has become a valuable security device and a
useful tool for public diplomacy and economic expansion. By
continuing to add VWP countries, the U.S. can develop even more
valuable information-sharing frameworks with countries around the
globe. ESTA, the program's online portal, ensures that the U.S.
knows more about foreign travelers before they even reach U.S.
soil, allowing the U.S. to focus on keeping terrorists and other
dangerous people out of the country. The White House should work
with Congress to bring in new countries that meet VWP requirements
and have a desire to work with the U.S. on security matters.
- Encouraging more information sharing. While
information-fusion centers have helped increase the flow of
information between federal, state, and local law enforcement, more
needs to be done to continue and expand the free flow of
information at all levels of government. Cooperation with foreign
law enforcement agencies is also essential. DHS should place this
information sharing at the top of its policy agenda.
- Repealing 100 percent scanning and screening
mandates. Congress should reassess unworkable mandates,
such as the 100 percent scanning and screening requirements, that
monopolize DHS time and resources for little to no security gain.
In 2007, Congress enacted these mandates to require 100 percent of
maritime and air cargo to undergo scanning and screening,
respectively. But enforcing these mandates is simply not feasible:
It would require technology that is not available and would slow
down the supply chain, disrupting an already struggling global
economy. Instead, Congress should repeal these mandates and promote
measures such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, a voluntary
multilateral effort of 90 nations to interdict suspicious shipments
as a better means of protecting cargo.
A Wake-Up Call
These three foiled plots occurred in the same week that the
House and Senate Judiciary Committees sat down to review
reauthorization of the sunset provisions of the PATRIOT Act. The
return of potential domestic terror attacks to the headlines should
serve as a wake-up call for Congress and the Administration that
counterterrorism is not a fad or a political tool: It is about
sending a clear message that the U.S. will not back down when it
comes to keeping Americans free, safe, and prosperous.
McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.