University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security director and University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law professor Michael Greenberger said Friday that the U.S. is in a much better position to respond to a potential terrorist attack than it was 20 years ago on September 11, 2001.
“At all levels of government, federal, state and local, law enforcement and intelligence has improved dramatically since the 9/11 attacks. And I think the country is much better protected today than it was 20 years ago,” Greenberger told MarylandReporter.com.
Below is an edited excerpt of an interview with Greenberger. He discussed how the 9/11 attacks have impacted domestic civil liberties, U.S. foreign policy, and the government’s strategy for both intelligence gathering and information sharing.
MarylandReporter.com: How has the government’s response to the 9/11 attacks impacted Americans’ civil liberties over the past two decades?
Greenberger: There is no doubt that there has been a substantial controversy over the government’s aggressive involvement in collecting data about people and whether that collection violates the Fourth Amendment, especially information that is collected through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that has risen and become more prominent in terms of the public understanding.
There have been many questions raised about whether the liberties afforded the government exceed that which the Constitution authorizes. There is some question about civil liberties in that regard. But I think as a general matter the government’s ask of the public in terms of heading off terrorist attacks or being suitably informed through intelligence about terrorist attacks has been accepted.
At all levels of government, federal, state and local, law enforcement and intelligence has improved dramatically since the 9/11 attacks. And I think the country is much better protected today than it was 20 years ago.
MarylandReporter.com: How has U.S. terrorism policy evolved since 9/11?
Greenberger: The classic complaint about 9/11 was the failure to connect the dots and of pieces of information that were coming in across the spectrum and several federal agencies and information that was coming into the states that was not getting to the federal government.
There is now much better cooperation among the feds, the states, and local governments. Most of that comes through fusion centers in each state or each federal judicial district where the FBI, state police, and local police are working hand-in-glove in sharing information. That has been one of the big successes over the last 20 years. The intelligence as to what may happen has improved substantially.
MarylandReporter.com: Was it a mistake for the Biden administration to decide to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan?
Greenberger: The American public was really ready to leave Afghanistan. If we did not leave we would have been there forever. As President Biden has said, staying there forever puts the lives of American men and women in the armed services in jeopardy. The attempt to rid Afghanistan of the terrorist threat-it just was not going to happen. The leaving was not the problem. It was the way we left that was the problem. It was not well thought through or well executed.
If we had stayed we might have been able to eliminate the sanctuary aspects of the country. But it was asking an awful lot of the American public to stay with the obligation of seeming to stay forever. The publicity around the leaving heightened the fact to the terrorist institutions that the country was available as a sanctuary and increased the international threat.
MarylandReporter.com: Is it actually possible to win a war terror, namely defeat a non-state entity?
Greenberger: Yes. It is possible to defeat a non-state entity. As I had said up until about four weeks ago, a strong argument could be made that it was not an absolute complete defeat. Intelligence agencies and intelligent people believed that the international terrorist threat had been tamped down. That the threat now was domestic in nature.
But making it clear that Afghanistan is a sanctuary raises the specter that we may now have to go back and look at the international threat again. A lot of the groups that we have talked about over the years, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-their ability to threaten the world has been substantially reduced.
Now we have to worry whether the opening of Afghanistan created by the United States leaving creates a vacuum where terrorist organizations can thrive again. We just have to watch that carefully. But by no means do I think that our efforts are futile. In fact, I think our efforts have been pretty praiseworthy over the last 20 years.
MarylandReporter.com: Broadly speaking, what are some of the lessons that have been learned over the past 20 years?
Greenberger: The most important lesson is connecting the dots and setting up an intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure where all of the intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies at various levels of government are in regular communication with each other. And making sure that they have the very best technology to carry out that communication-which has been substantially improved over 20 years.
On 9/11, the New York City Police Department and the New York City Fire Department were using different communication systems and they could not speak to each other. So the police were notified to get out of the World Trade Center. But the fire department was not and a lot of fire department personnel lost their lives.
All of the different communications resources that are addressed to both preventing terrorism and responding to terrorism are now all on the same wavelength. And there has been tremendous strides made over the last 20 years allowing everybody who has a responsibility to talk to each other. It is not perfect. A lot of work is being done to make it perfect. But it is so much better than it was 20 years ago.