Domestic Terrorism in the United States
The Code of Laws of the United States of America defines domestic terrorism as "activities that: (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended: (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."
At the helm of the domestic counterterrorism effort is the FBI, which works closely with state, local and other federal agencies to gather, archive and analyze massive amounts of information on U.S. citizens and residents when law enforcement officers or fellow citizens believe they are acting suspiciously.
Days after the 9/11 attacks, then-recently appointed FBI director Robert Mueller sent his field offices a memo that made prevention of any future terrorist attacks the FBI's "one set of priorities." According to the FBI's website, the FBI "needed to become more adept at preventing terrorist attacks, not just investigating them after the fact." The key to actualizing these priorities, said Mueller, was intelligence. In November 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice began conducting investigations, seeking individuals whose intentions, rather than actions, constituted a threat.
Journalist Petra Bartosiewicz of Harper's Magazine recently compared the post-9/11 changes to those made at other crucial moments in American history. She writes, "In the run-up to World War I, President Woodrow Wilson decried the danger of 'hyphenated Americans,' pointing specifically to Irish and German immigrants. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned without cause. These reactions were obviously hysterical, but were also temporary; the more recent emergency measures, however, have been institutionalized as a permanent law-enforcement priority."
According to a 2010 investigation by The Washington Post, there are currently 3,984 federal, state and local organizations working on domestic counterterrorism. Of those, 934 have been created since the 9/11 attacks. Since 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded $31 billion in grants to state and local governments to improve their ability to find and protect against terrorists.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that while the U.S. government has carried out more than 1,000 prosecutions of people it labels as terrorists since 9/11, only one — an Egyptian immigrant who opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002 — committed a terrorist act in the United States during that time.
The USA PATRIOT Act
In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed on December 6, 2002. The USA PATRIOT Act reduces restrictions on law-enforcement officials' ability to gather and share information on suspected terrorists.
One of the provisions provided by the act is the sharing of information between intelligence and criminal investigators, which expands the scope of investigations and cooperation between departments. Additionally, in terrorism investigations, federal judges now have the authority to grant search warrants outside their districts, including providing access to electronic sources such as emails, and the authority to issue "sneak and peek" warrants, which authorities may use to search homes or businesses before notifying the suspects. "Roving wiretaps" now permit investigators to follow suspects continuously through various devices, including cell phones, Blackberry devices and computers, without requiring separate court authorization for each. The group of people the FBI can pursue has also expanded to include anyone who supports terrorist organizations by providing them material resources.
Among the more recent initiatives of the USA PATRIOT Act was the establishment of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which the FBI defines as "small cells of highly trained, locally based, passionately committed investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts and other specialists from dozens of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It is a multi-agency effort led by the Justice Department and FBI designed to combine the resources of federal, state and local law enforcement."
Critics of the USA PATRIOT Act maintain that such provisions lack the transparency to prevent abuses, allowing the government to access and amass information about, as well as search the properties of, non-criminal citizens. The FBI defends its change in practices against public criticism of its constitutionality. In a 2004 statement, FBI director Robert Mueller said, "Many of our counterterrorism successes, in fact, are the direct results of provisions included in the Act . . . Without them, the FBI could be forced back into pre-September 11 practices, attempting to fight the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind our backs."
On May 27, 2011, President Obama signed into law a four-year extension of the Patriot Act.
To read the full act, click here.
» NPR: "The Patriot Act: Key Controversies"
» American Civil Liberties Union: "How the USA PATRIOT Act Redefines 'Domestic Terrorism'"
» Harper's Magazine: "To Catch A Terrorist"
» FBI: "Domestic Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era"
» FBI: "A New Era of National Security, 2001-2008"
» FBI: "Protecting America from Terrorist Attack: Our Joint Terrorism Task Forces"
» FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 76, no. 12 (December 2007)
» Financial Crimes Enforcement Network: "USA PATRIOT Act"
» Office of the Law Revision Counsel: "United States Code"
» PBS NewsHour: "Lesson Plan: Homegrown Terrorism – a Major Domestic Security Problem"
» The Washington Post: "Monitoring America"