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Will 9/11 Policy Forever Harm Privacy, Other Rights?

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, political leaders made a number of changes to how homeland security is maintained. Some experts say these changes are still having negative effects on people's rights.

9/11 memorial
Shutterstock/Keith Burke
(TNS) — The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, pulverized New York’s World Trade Center and penetrated the Pentagon destroyed any illusion that terrorism couldn’t reach the United States and spawned a massive national security overhaul.

Two decades later, precautions that range from digital surveillance to airline passenger pat-downs have prevented a large-scale terrorism recurrence. But they have raised big-brotherism concerns.

Many of the controversial security precautions are rooted in legislation that Congress adopted within weeks of the attacks. First, it adopted the far-reaching USA Patriot Act, which made it easier for the government to collect communications records in an effort to detect terrorist plots. The law also created new terrorism-related federal crimes, gave the federal government new powers to find and seize money being used by terrorist groups and wider latitude in deporting known terrorists and their supporters. The statute of limitations on terrorist acts and prison sentences for terrorists were both lengthened.

When he signed the Patriot Act, President George W. Bush said it would give law enforcement officials better tools to put an end to financial counterfeiting, smuggling and money laundering, let law enforcement and intelligence agencies share vital information needed to disrupt a terrorist attack before it occurs, and make “investigating terrorist activity the number one priority for both law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”

Those who voted against it feared it would grant law enforcement too much power it could easily abuse. North Carolina Democratic Rep. Mel Watt observed on the House of Representatives floor that many groups in the United States have historically had their rights violated by law enforcement and “we cannot just come in in the middle of a terrorism episode and forget all of the history that has occurred in our country.”


Concerns over the law’s misuse became a national focus in 2013 when former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed the government’s use of its powers to establish a surveillance system that sucked in the telephone, Internet and location records of entire populations around the globe. His revelations prompted tech firms to make more of an effort to encrypt their users’ data, and spurred court challenges from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“Eisenhower once warned of the military industrial complex—now we have a surveillance industrial complex,” says Avidan Y. Cover of Case Western Reserve University’s Institute for Global Security Law and Policy. “The government exploits technological advances like smartphones and computers to seek access to tremendous amounts of information. In many ways, we as a populace are compliant with this. Our levels of fear were understandably amped up after 9/11, but there has been an overreaction.”

ACLU National Security Project senior attorney Patrick Toomey said legal challenges resulted in the shutdown of NSA’s bulk collection of U.S. telephone call records, but authorities still collect communications with an international component on the theory that the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections don’t apply on foreign soil. Toomey points out that Internet communications between two people located in the United States can be routed through foreign servers, which could allow government spying on those conversations.

“Congress must put an end to mass spying by ensuring that surveillance is targeted, that there is robust judicial oversight and that people whose lives are invaded by government surveillance can challenge that spying in court,” says Toomey. “We have called on Congress to do that.”


Slightly more than two months after the attack, Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to address flaws that let 19 hijackers armed with box cutters and knives take control of four commercial airline flights and crash them. Among other things, it set up the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to handle airport passenger and luggage screenings instead of private security companies that airlines previously hired to do it. TSA now screens all checked luggage for dangerous materials. Before Sept. 11, a small proportion of luggage was screened.

Another new law established the Department of Homeland Security as a stand-alone department. The new department incorporated all or part of 22 different federal departments and agencies, including the TSA, U.S. Coast Guard, the Secret Service, U.S. Customs Service, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Bush said the new agency would have nearly 170,000 employees, and would “reduce our vulnerability.”

The United States also began using its military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a prison for hundreds of accused enemy combatants in a location not subject to U.S. laws against prisoner abuse. Interrogators there used techniques that many describe as torture. A few dozen prisoners are still at the base to the consternation of human rights activists, who have called for its closure.

TSA enhanced its screenings of airline passengers and carry-on luggage, with evolving machines and procedures to scan travelers for potentially harmful items. Nowadays, it uses millimeter wave advanced imaging technology and walk-through metal detectors to screen passengers for weapons and explosives that might be concealed under clothing. It uses X-rays on bags. More intrusive searches, such as passenger pat-downs and opening of bags, occur if the technology detects something suspicious. As new threats emerged, passengers were required to their put their shoes through the X-ray machines, and limit liquids in their carry-ons.

The new security measures for travelers and TSA technologies such as digital facial recognition have raised privacy concerns, as well as outcry from groups like Muslims who feel that they are targeted for more intrusive airport screenings. Early TSA machines that generated explicit images of people’s forms were switched out for those that generated generic, cartoon-like drawings.


Government agencies also created a watch list of more than a million people who are always subjected to invasive screenings, and a “no fly” list of people banned from airplanes. The ACLU says many people who aren’t terrorist risks have made it onto those lists, and it’s difficult to get off them.

“We have analogized this to 20th century measures aimed at communist sympathizers,” who were prevented from traveling internationally through various means, including refusal to issue them passports, says ACLU National Security Project senior attorney Hugh Handeyside. He said many of those lists are viewed in retrospect as an injustice.

An ACLU report on the lists says that to be effective, they should focus on “true terrorists who pose a genuine threat of taking over or taking down an aircraft.” The organization maintains the government uses vague criteria and a very low threshold to place people on the terrorism watchlist.

“Bloated watch lists are bad not only because they cast many innocent travelers as suspected terrorists, but also because they dissipate the focus that those screeners should be keeping on true terrorists,” the report says.

The terrorist attacks also prompted local governments and public entities like sports stadiums to expand their pre-existing use of metal detectors. Security cameras became more widespread, helping police to solve more crimes but prompting worries about abuse.

“A lot of people are concerned that the cameras are getting information about us without our knowledge, and question what that information is used for,” says Case Western Reserve University sociologist Brian Gran, who currently has a fellowship working at State Department’s counterterrorism bureau.

Gran says some of the changes in security at public venues were needed to head off mass attacks but worries they’ve made it too easy for the government to violate someone’s privacy and monitor people “not for anything that they have done, but because they fit a so-called profile.” He said private sector security and surveillance has also grown, and it’s difficult to know what they’re doing because they’re not subject to the same public records laws as government entities.


Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation think tank, says pressure put on terrorist groups by intelligence, police and military operations has made it more difficult for terrorist organizations to recruit people in countries like the United States and train them in use of weapons and explosives. They instead try exhorting individual sympathizers to commit attacks that will be applauded by the group and often result in the death or arrest of the attacker.

Because it is more difficult than it used to be to buy explosives like dynamite, he said many of the devices that terrorist sympathizers try to use are crude, and there have been increases in stabbing attacks and people driving vehicles into crowds, instead of attacking targets with symbolic value. He says they’ve killed around 100 people in the United States over the past 20 years, and that most of the perpetrators were “troubled individuals” with histories of aggression, mental instability and substance abuse.

“Statistically, terrorism is an extremely rare crime,” says Jenkins. “Yes, there have been improvements in security. Yes, we do know they’ve worked in the long run against specific targets like commercial aviation that there’s been a great expenditure to protect. At the same time, it is random, it is individual, and it is becoming difficult to deal with. If someone wants to open fire at a birthday party or at coworkers, it is extremely difficult to stop those. Yes, security works and the level of terrorist violence is very, very low, but at the same time, we have to recognize that we won’t get this number to zero. We can only take this so far.”

In recent years, efforts to prevent terrorism resulted in the arrests of several Ohioans accused of plotting mass mayhem, including Demetrius Pitts of Maple Heights, who was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for planning to detonate a van full of explosives at a Cleveland park during a popular Independence Day celebration; Amir Said Rahman Al-Ghazi of Sheffield Lake, who was sentenced to a 16-year term for providing material support to ISIS; Toledo’s Elizabeth Lecron, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for planning two terrorist attacks, including one at a Toledo bar; and Columbus’ Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, who got a 22-year prison sentence after training to be a terrorist in Syria with the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusrah Front and plotting to kill U.S.-based troops or government employees.

U.S. Sen Rob Portman of Ohio, who is the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, attributed the Columbus man’s arrest to law enforcement’s solid relationship with the city’s Somali community, which revealed the potential attack.

“Obviously, the leaders in the community were adamant about not having this kind of activity, certainly terrorist activity in their midst,” Portman said at an August hearing. “And so they worked with law enforcement to provide the information. It’s one of the few examples we can point to in America where we actually know that law enforcement worked with a community, the community responded, and we were able to avert a terrible attack. So I do think law enforcement can play a very effective role at the local level in an appropriate way.”


The Department of Homeland Security also started focusing more attention on prevention after releasing a strategic framework in 2019 that recognized that “while we had successfully prevented another attack on the scale of 9/11 on our homeland, we have more terrorists worldwide today than we did on September 11, 2001,” former DHS Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Elizabeth Neumann told Portman’s committee.

“That realization, combined with law enforcement’s concerns that they could not keep up with the increased volume and velocity at which we were seeing people radicalize (in part due to the widespread adoption of social media and the changes that it wrought in radicalization patterns), led us to realize it was time to change our approach. We needed to move ‘upstream’ and address root causes that drive people to radicalize and seek violence in the first place,” Neumann testified.

She told the committee that many extremism experts note that the motivation to join terrorist movements tends to be less about the ideology and more about filling unmet needs caused by trauma, exposure to violence, a sense of marginalization, grievance or humiliation. DHS is trying to help local communities develop societal resistance to radicalization and develop threat assessment and management capabilities to “off-ramp” susceptible individuals before they commit a crime or violent act.

She said too many mass attackers in the United States, such as those who committed shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and an El Paso Walmart, were reported to law enforcement before they attacked, but law enforcement couldn’t do anything other than “knock and talk.”

“In the aftermath of the attack, law enforcement would often validate that the individual showed concerning signs but that there was no legal mechanism for them to act because no crime had been committed,” she said.

Efforts to prevent attacks should involve experts from public health, mental health, education and social services along with law enforcement, said Neumann.

“The goal of these efforts is to help build resilience in individuals vulnerable to radicalization and, for those who have radicalized, to attempt to help them find healthier ways to address their grievances or problems before they cross a criminal threshold,” she continued. “While law enforcement has an important role to contribute in threat assessment and management, prevention efforts are best led by non-law enforcement personnel.”

But Arab American Institute Executive Director Maya M. Berry told Portman’s committee that discriminatory government counterterrorism policies have resulted in “sweeping constraints on civil rights and civil liberties in the name of national security,” often targeting American Muslims. Arab Americans, Black Americans and Asian Americans. She pointed to the New York Police Department’s surveillance of mosques, community centers, restaurants and other establishments frequented by Muslims, as an example.

She said federal law enforcement agencies have asserted expansive surveillance authority, and Congress needs to exercise more oversight “to ensure existing prevention efforts do not violate civil rights and liberties like the countering violent extremism programs that proceeded them.” She also suggested that Congress should require a “complete mapping of post-9/11 era programs and the impact they’ve had on communities, arguing that DHS is “the only government entity that, as part of its regular operations, conducts invasive physical searches of millions of Americans and their belongings each week without any predicate. It is also one of the only government agencies that retains huge amounts of data on individuals, using only ‘implied consent’ for justification.”

“We have real concerns about what prevention programs have looked like and are willing to see where they’re going,” she told the committee. “But the reality is there needs to be a great deal of oversight.”

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