Destined to Repeat: Are the lessons of 9/11 being forgotten?

Border Management Magazine - March 2019

9/11 - border lessons
Many 9/11 Commission Report recommendations have either not been addressed or been reversed.

The border security lessons of 9/11 are being forgotten amid the politicization of debates over Trump immigration policies and the U.S.-Mexico border, writes Laura Hains CPP.

On September 11, 2001 the world was shaken by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and the crash on a field in Pennsylvania. 

There are several reasons why we should be discussing this now almost 19 years later:  the saying “those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it”; the current political climate in the US concerning the wall; sanctuary policies; and lack of cooperation with law enforcement come to mind.  

On July 22, 2004 the 9/11 Commission Report was published, and on August 22, 2004 the supplemental 9/11 and Terrorist Travel report was published. Both described extensive research into questions concerning the attack and gave recommendations on solutions to prevent the repeat of such a horrendous occurrence.

In the wake of 9/11, the government, historians, analysts and commissions, news outlets and everyday people hashed and rehashed information surrounding the attacks in an attempt to find the answers as to who, why, and how to prevent it from ever happening again.  

The 9/11 Report identified “Four Kinds of Failures: Imagination, Policy, Capabilities and Management”.  These failures can be seen in the world today.  

An attack by other means

Before 9/11 no one could imagine the 9/11 attack –  planes as weapons attacking the homeland.

Thinking out of the box consider this: On January 31, 2019 a K-9 was alerted to a semi-trailer coming into the Mariposa commercial port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. On inspection, 254 pounds of fentanyl was discovered in a false floor compartment of the cucumber-carrying 18-wheeler. This was the largest seizure of fentanyl ever recorded at a U.S. Port of entry with an estimated street value of USD 3.5 million.  

With all the attention that’s being focused on the southern border, one would think this would be the last place to send in a load of this size and volume.  

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Contact with an amount as small as a few grains of salt can kill a person quickly. As the Washington Post reported, one kilogram of fentanyl can produce one million fatal doses. 254 pounds of fentanyl could kill more than 115 million people according to the U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Could this be the new means of attack that no one can imagine: disbursement of fentanyl into a water supply or by some other means? 

Cheap and driven

9/11 was carried out by small group of individuals not an army or foreign power.  “Measured on a government scale,” states the 9/11 Report, “the resources behind it were trivial” (think of the money that the sale of fentanyl provided by drug cartels would provide for a criminal act).  

It goes on to say, the organization behind the attack “recruited a mixture of young fanatics and highly educated zealots who could not find suitable places in their home societies or were driven from them.”

A quick glance at the current state of the world shows the fighting in Syria and the displacement of millions of refugees around the world running from conflict, tyranny, social injustice, poverty and political unrest, of which the conditions and unrest in Central America are an example. These are all problems that could easily move individuals to become frustrated with their lives, become zealots for a cause, and turn that anger against those who they believe is the cause of their misery. The caravans moving to the southern border would be an excellent means of infiltrating the U.S. 

Tyranny of conventional wisdom

“It is hard now to recapture the conventional wisdom before 9/11”, states the 9/11 Report. “For example, a New York Times article in April 1999 sought to debunk claims that Bin Laden was a terrorist leader with the headline “U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks.”

Sound familiar? Today, news agencies and government officials throughout the U.S. and the world consistently debunk the idea that terrorists or criminals could be crossing the border with illegal immigrants. 

Those streaming illegally into the U.S. and other nations around the world are for the most part individuals who only want a better life. But speaking to border officers on the U.S.-Mexico border, one learns that on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis they stop individuals from places of origin other than Mexico and Central America, some of whom are convicted criminals, gang members and even persons on terror watch lists. 

The majority of these come from conflict zones in the Middle East where their true identities and backgrounds cannot be determined because vetting is impossible due to the collapse of their homelands. Many people seeking to cross the border illegally carry no identification whatsoever.

Prior to 9/11, intelligence agencies had been monitoring some of the 9/11 associates like Khalid Sheik Mohammed. There was intelligence and a belief there was a terror cell. We also had some records of the 9/11 Hijackers and other planners as they had visas and passports and had traveled in and out of the U.S. They were not totally unknown.

If such a terrorist were to pose as an illegal immigrant, there may be no way of verifying their data through background investigations. Yet this has become a highly politicized issue, and law makers and news outlets refuse to acknowledge the possibility and continue to debunk such claims. 

Ease of passage

The Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) agreement allows the free movement of people, goods and services in the Caribbean region. So, for example, if a person from Syria arrives in the U.K., they can then travel without question to Jamaica, then travel freely without question in and around the Caribbean, including Belize in Central America. 

It is a quick trip through Central America and Mexico and then into the U.S. via the southern border. So, it is not impossible or far fetched to believe that persons with less than good intentions could be entering the U.S. by such a route.

Authorities divided

One of the main lessons that was discussed in the 9/11 Report was the importance of cooperation, intelligence sharing and – most importantly – communication between the federal agencies and state and local law enforcement. It was a major area of concern.  

“Many state and local enforcement agencies worked closely with federal immigration authorities before 9/11,” states the 9/11 & Terrorist Travel supplement. 

“They contact INS when they arrested aliens on criminal charges and assisted in the investigations, arrests and detention of illegal aliens. In return, INS special agents (now ICE) with their specialized training and resources, assisted other law enforcement agencies fighting violent crime and drug trafficking.”

This was one of the few positive entries in the 9/11 Report, acknowledging that it was being done well but that more needed to be done to ensure cooperation. 

Billions of dollars have thus been spent on upgrades and new communication equipment, fusion centers (defined by the DHS as “a collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise and information to the center with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity”), and other intelligence centers.  

However, today there are also ‘Sanctuary‘ states and cities.

In these Sanctuary areas not only do local law enforcement agencies not share intelligence or cooperation, but in states such as California and cities like New York, law enforcement is not permitted – or refuse – to share vital information about violent criminals who in many cases are released back into the public and go on to commit other heinous crimes like child rape, and murder. 

The recent MS-13 gang murder in broad daylight in New York City is an example of the consequences of the reversal of interagency information sharing and cooperation. The Report had argued that interagency cooperation was in need of improvement and enhancement, not a complete reversal.

Need for reform

Border security and Immigration reform was a very important topic in the 9/11 Report.  Because of these findings, new Departments like the Department of Homeland Security were formed. New agencies arose like the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). Customs, Immigration and Border Patrol became U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  

It was determined that the immigration system needed a complete revamp. New Biometric systems like US VISIT, communication systems, intelligences units with cooperation from state and local, as described above, were developed costing billions of dollars. Numerous other immigration recommendations were made, including those concerning identification and fraud documents.  

That was 2004. It is now 2019 and many of the recommendations have either not been addressed, such as the completion of the entry-exit system, or reversed, such as the “catch and release” program.  

Celebrities know better?

An interesting section in the Report relates to the importance of trusting subjective judgment. “Good people who have worked in such jobs for a long time understand this phenomenon [the value of intuition over objective factors in the screening of passengers] well”, it states. “Other evidence we obtained confirmed the importance of letting experienced gate agents or security screeners ask questions and use their judgment.”

While this relates specifically to the context of traveler screening, it’s worthwhile extrapolating it out and considering the value of the subjective judgement of well-trained and experienced individuals in relation to ‘the wall’.  

Border agents, experts with decades of experience, have testified before Congress, and have been on television and talk shows explaining the need for ‘the wall’ and enhanced border security, yet some Representatives, Senators, news media and celebrities (why their opinion is important is a puzzle) have roundly refused to accept these professionals’ expertise. 

Heeding the lessons of history

That an attack is imminent is not the case, nor is it what is being suggested here. What is being suggested is that the 9/11 Commission worked diligently to complete a document that would make recommendations and answer questions in the hope of preventing another attack.  

The Commission, according to the Report “reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed more than 1,200 individuals in ten countries. This included nearly every senior official from the current and previous administrations who had responsibility for topics covered in our mandate.”

The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission reports are available for all to read and heed. Yet today in the U.S. and in many countries around the world the reverse is taking place due to social pressures and political correctness. The question to ask is “are we destined for another major attack because we did not heed the lessons that history has provided?”

Laura Hains CPP is an independent security consultant and owner of Hammerhead Security Services LLC. Laura retired from US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) in 2008 after 31 years of federal service, during which she worked as a Special Agent for the Department of Defense, as a Security Manager for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and as an Officer and Supervisor for CBP. She subsequently worked for two companies operating under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), and was an Adjunct Professor at Keiser University (2011-15) lecturing in criminal justice and homeland security. Laura holds a Masters Degree from George Washington University and an ASIS Certified Protection Professional (CPP) board certification.

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