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How Did 9/11 Change The FBI?

A flag sits atop one of the memorial panels at the World Trade Center site in New York City.
A flag atop one of the memorial panels at the World Trade Center site in New York City.

NHPR’s podcast Civics 101 is launching a new series that explores 9/11’s impact on American society, government and civil liberties.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is approaching. Many of us can remember exactly where we were on that day and how our country changed afterward.

Get NHPR's reporting about politics, the pandemic, and other top stories in your inbox — sign up for our newsletter today.

Hannah McCarthy, co-host and producer of NHPR’s Civics 101 podcast joined NHPR Morning Edition host, Rick Ganley, to discuss what she learned about the FBI’s counterterrorism strategy before and after 9/11.

Takeaways:

  • increased counterterrorism efforts and intense security trickled down to the experience of everyday people in the U.S. and globally. We are still experiencing the consequences of the rise in paranoia, nationalism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia in the U.S. 
  • The FBI was focused on Al Qaeda before 9/11, but the Bureau’s counterterrorism department was significantly under-resourced. 
  • In September 2001, most FBI field offices were deemed well below the standard for fighting terrorism. 
  • Under the scrutiny from the 9/11 Commission Report, the FBI added to its counterterrorism efforts and resources. Joint Terrorism Task Forces, local investigators and analysts watching for terrorist activity, existed before 9/11, but they nearly doubled in number after the attacks. 

Transcript: 

Hannah McCarthy: Our show is about the basics of how government works, and many of the ways that our United States government works was radically shifted in the days, weeks, months, years after 9/11. So we wanted to interrogate through that government lens. As you mentioned, civil liberties, security surveillance, how did the American life change because of the way our government had to change in the pivots following the events of that Tuesday morning.

Rick Ganley: [I’m] thinking a lot about the Patriot Act, which was so huge, such a pivotal moment. The first episode was out on Tuesday. It specifically looks at the FBI before and after the 9/11 attacks. Why start with the FBI?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah. Well, when we think of 9/11, we often think of this sudden rise in national security being a priority in not just the minds of people working in government, but the American people. The average layperson is thinking about national security all the time. It becomes this priority.

And on September 11th, the FBI was considered to be a counterterrorism bureau, that was one of their priorities. However, the events of 9/11 still happened, so following those events, there was an immense amount of scrutiny on the FBI asking, Well, you know, if you were working counterterrorism, how did this then happen?

So we wanted to speak to somebody from the FBI and say, OK, you now consider yourselves to prioritize counterterrorism above all things, you go to the website, that's the number one priority for the FBI. How did you go from an organization that, in the minds of many, was sort of fumbling when it came to counterterrorism prior to 9/11 to being this incredibly beefed up counterterrorism effort, both domestic and international in the United States?

Rick Ganley: Yeah, why was it suddenly front and center?

Hannah McCarthy: Exactly, yeah.

Rick Ganley: What did you learn about the Bureau during your reporting? Did anything jump out at you surprised you?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah, I learned a lot, but I think one of the most surprising elements was that in total, the FBI has about 14,000 agents. And when I say agents, these are the people who mobilize. When something happens they're on the street, they are talking to people. That's who we imagine when we imagine G-men in these movies, right? These guys in dark sunglasses and cool FBI jackets. And in comparison, for example, the New York City Police Force is 36,000 people.

So the FBI actually has a really comparatively small force of people and this is worldwide, not just in the United States. And the reason I feel like that's a really great piece of information is that it kind of illustrates the reason why the FBI has to be a coordinating force that sort of helps everybody else as opposed to the chief force that is the boots on the ground. They actually have to coordinate all of these disparate organizations around the country and around the world in order to get their job done.

Rick Ganley: And that's a relatively small number of people to do that job and to have all that power concentrated in that small set of hands too.

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah.

Rick Ganley: One of the questions that you dig into, Hannah, is how could 9/11 have possibly happened since the FBI was already focusing on Al Qaeda and counterterrorism? Can you tell us what self-examination that the bureau was doing after the attacks?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah. And I'll say, prior to the attacks, there was an effort in place called MAXCAP 05, Maximum Capacity Five, which was supposed to bring all of the field offices in the United States up to maximum capacity counterterrorism protocols and efforts by 2005. In 2001, most field offices were rated as being far below maximum capacity.

So the events of 9/11 happened and there is, in part because of the 9/11 Commission Report, which just it's beautifully written and it really pulls apart all of these reasons why these events happened. But under that scrutiny, the FBI totally reorganized. They beefed up counterterrorism to an intense degree and created a very strong division of counterterrorism at the FBI. Most importantly, however, they took what had been a decentralized approach to criminal investigation and counterterrorism efforts and centralized all of that.

So those joint terrorism task forces, those were all around the country, but they weren't centralized. These were autonomous field offices doing their jobs after 9/11, in part because they also had to increase coordination and communication amongst all levels of government. It was a central office in D.C. that was helping these joint terrorism task forces and everything was centralized from this one place.

Rick Ganley: So this is concentrated power now and something we've been living with for nearly two decades.

Hannah McCarthy: I mean, that heightened level of security is felt by every person living in the United States and outside of the United States. It totally changed the lived experience.

Rick Ganley: And we are still living with those consequences today. What are you looking forward to covering next in the series?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah, I am really looking forward to the TSA episode. I am not personally making that episode, but a lot of people don't realize we had no TSA prior to 9/11.

Rick Ganley: Oh, everything changed.

Hannah McCarthy: Everything changed. I am working on an episode about the three acts of Congress that really drastically changed everything: the authorization of military force, the Patriot Act, as you brought up, and the Homeland Security Act, which established Homeland Security. And we also are working on an episode about Guantanamo Bay. So we've got a lot coming out.

And as listeners call in and leave voice memos and write us emails and say, "I want to learn this about 9/11, can you investigate that?" We can. This is a year-long intermittent series. We want to answer your questions and try to better understand what happened to our government in the days, weeks, months and 20 years after 9/11.

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