Reevaluating Our Counter-Terrorism Information Sharing Methods

After the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress established the 9/11 Commission to provide a full accounting of the circumstances leading up to the attack, as well as policy recommendations to prevent future attacks. As a result, the United States took unprecedented and necessary steps to build a whole-of-government counter-terrorism infrastructure to address the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other foreign terrorist organizations. This included creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as new centers and task forces, such as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), to better integrate threat analysis and information sharing to combat terrorism.

But the 9/11 Commission completed its work more than a decade and a half ago, and the terrorist threat has evolved. In addition to the foreign terrorist threat from al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and others, we also face a significant threat from individuals, here at home, inspired by a range of violent domestic and foreign ideologies. Last November, one of my committees, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, held a hearing where the leaders of DHS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and NCTC spoke about how terrorist threats in the United States have largely evolved from sophisticated, externally-directed plots to attacks perpetrated primarily by lone actors. They noted that lone actors can operate with little to no warning and present significant challenges to law enforcement and security officials working to identify and disrupt potential plots.

The evolution of various terrorism threats requires an evolution in our approach. It is imperative that we take a step back to reevaluate our efforts to identify, track, and prevent all terrorism threats in the United States and that we adapt our methods to the current threat landscape. For these reasons, I joined with Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to introduce bipartisan legislation to help improve information sharing about all terrorism threats within and across all levels of government – and ultimately prevent terrorist attacks in the United States.

In 2019, the United States saw a number of homegrown domestic terrorist attacks, including in Poway, Dallas, Gilroy, El Paso, and most recently against a Jewish community in New York. Last year, FBI Director Chris Wray testified that domestic terrorist arrests had increased and the majority of these individuals were inspired by violent white supremacy. In his testimony, Director Wray noted, “More deaths were caused by domestic violent extremists than international terrorists in recent years.”

In response to the growing terrorism threats that we face, the bipartisan legislation that I introduced with Senator Johnson will create a federal commission to examine information sharing related to all terrorist threats in the United States and provide recommendations to guard against future attacks.

The commission will convene representatives from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, DHS, the FBI, and the Department of Justice, as well as state and local law enforcement, to review how all terrorist threat information – relating to both domestic and internationally inspired terrorism in the U.S. – is shared among federal agencies and with all levels of government.

Without adequate and timely data, it is difficult for federal, state, and local law enforcement to keep communities safe, and this commission would determine how to improve information sharing with these entities, making it more likely that law enforcement will be able to stop an attack before it occurs. Specifically, our bill requires that the commission conduct a thorough review of which federal, state, and local government partners – including law enforcement – receive what information, the mechanisms by which information is shared, and any challenges to sharing.

In order to ensure that the perspectives of state and local law enforcement remain front and center in the commission’s review and recommendations, the commission includes not only federal officials, but also representatives of state and local law enforcement and fusion centers. Furthermore, the bill requires that these local representatives come from both urban and rural areas to ensure a diverse cross section of information sharing experience and needs. The commission must also solicit state and local input by conducting field interviews and consulting with relevant advisory boards.

Importantly, at the conclusion of its work, the commission will produce a report with recommendations to address gaps in information sharing to better combat all homegrown terrorist threats, whether inspired by domestic or foreign ideologies.

The threat landscape is constantly changing, and we must adapt our information sharing methods too. It is time to take a fresh look at how federal agencies are sharing information regarding all types of terrorist threats to help prevent future attacks and save lives – that is exactly what this commission would do. 

About the Author(s)

Maggie Hassan

Democratic Senator from New Hampshire; Serves on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee