Homeland Security and Domestic Anti-Terrorism

Subject: Law
Pages: 6
Words: 1487
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: Master


After September 11, 2001, predicting and preventing terrorist acts became the top priority for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Terrorism is defined as “an offense that is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct” (Bjelopera, 2013, p. 1). It poses a significant threat to the national security and the well-being of citizens; therefore, the US government pays much attention to timely revealing terrorists’ plans and preventing their attacks. Yet, there are still gaps in America’s counterterrorism efforts, which lead to vulnerabilities in national security. This paper aims at identifying these gaps by exploring the limits of power of the FBI, the impact of the USA Patriot Act, and the mission of the DHS.

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The Limits of Power of the FBI in Pursuing Surveillance of Potential Terrorists

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is a leading US organization dealing with counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and criminal investigations. The terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, have led to significant changes in the work of the FBI. Prior to the catastrophe, the agency used a reactive approach in its work, investigating committed crimes. After the 9/11 attacks, it has taken up a proactive approach, and the prediction and prevention of terrorism acts have become its top priorities (Bjelopera, 2013). Thus, at present, the FBI is much better prepared to counter terrorist acts.

The FBI gathers intelligence to identify potential crimes that can be committed in the future. The FBI sources of intelligence include the public, government agencies, current FBI investigations, state and local law enforcement, and FBI Legal Attachés (Bjelopera, 2013). Its powers regarding terrorist surveillance are regulated mainly by the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The USA Patriot Act has enabled the FBI to use surveillance tools that were previously available for investigating drug trafficking and organized crime (Department of Justice [DOJ], n.d.). Moreover, it facilitated information sharing among government agencies and the search-warrant process (DOJ, n.d.). FISA regulates physical and electronic surveillance targeted at foreign powers and agents (McAdams, 2007). Section 702 of FISA, in particular, allows the FBI to obtain communications of foreign persons located outside of the US (Congressional Research Service, 2016). Hence, the FBI is provided with quite ample powers for predicting and preventing terrorist acts.

However, the power of the FBI related to terrorist surveillance is limited. For example, under Section 702, surveillance cannot be targeted at US citizens regardless of their location, any person inside the US, or a foreign person communicating with someone located in the US to retrieve information about the person inside the US (Congressional Research Service, 2016). It means that, despite the improved intelligence about foreign terrorism, there is a lack of an effective plan for surveillance of potential homegrown terrorists. In addition, according to Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau (n.d.), the FBI is not as well-positioned to gather domestic intelligence as police and is limited in its intelligence efforts by “its mission and case-oriented approach” (p. 7). Thus, there is a gap in the surveillance of potential homegrown terrorists.

Finally, the FBI has limited power in pursuing surveillance of individuals who view terrorist propaganda on the Internet and can be inspired to commit a terrorist act on behalf of a terrorist group. According to Moy (2018), it is nearly impossible for the FBI to track an individual terrorist, especially a US citizen, who plans a terrorist act on behalf of the group but does not contact any of the group members. Although there might be solutions to this surveillance issue, such as removing terrorist content or punishing the speaker or the viewer, these solutions are doubtfully constitutional and are concerned with other limitations (Moy, 2018). For example, the speaker of the terrorist propaganda can be located outside of the US and is likely to conceal his identity, which will frustrate the FBI’s efforts to track him.

The Organization, Staffing, and Training of the FBI

The FBI consists of 56 field offices in major cities and 358 resident agencies located throughout the US. The large number of offices spread across the country helps the FBI to establish its presence and serve a greater number of communities. In addition, the FBI is involved in Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) that are “locally based, multi-agency teams of investigators, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, and other specialists who investigate terrorism and terrorism-related crimes” (Bjelopera, 2013, p. 13). The FBI also has Legal Attaché offices in many other countries. The FBI’s countrywide and global presence helps it to serve communities by fulfilling its missions. Yet, there is an issue in how the FBI is organized, which reduced the effectiveness of the agency. According to Wray (2018), the FBI lacks a headquarters facility that would allow it to perform all the functions that the government expects of it. The current building is obsolete, inefficient, with security vulnerabilities, and cannot accommodate all the headquarters workforce (Wray, 2018). As a result, it hinders rapid information sharing across divisions.

The staffing of the FBI and training of employees seems to be inadequate to perform its multiple tasks. For example, FBI employees dealing with CHS validations did not receive adequate training to write intelligence products, which could have resulted in missed abnormalities and harmed operational security (Office of the Inspector General [OIG], 2019). Furthermore, staffing levels are inadequate to fulfill the volume of work assigned to the FBI (OIG, 2019). These issues may prevent the FBI from effectively and rapidly countering terrorism.

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The Impact of the USA Patriot Act on America’s Counterterrorism Efforts

The USA Patriot Act has introduced several significant changes that improved the government’s counterterrorism efforts. This legislation enabled investigators to use surveillance and roving wiretaps against terrorists, obtain orders to retrieve business records in terrorism cases, and investigate terrorism cases without tipping off terrorists (Department of Justice, n.d.). Moreover, the USA Patriot Act removed legal barriers that hindered information sharing among law enforcement, national defense, and intelligence communities (Department of Justice, n.d.). The Act has also updated the law to address the changes in the criminal field related to technological advances and toughened the punishment for persons involved in terrorism (Department of Justice, n.d.). Thus, the USA Patriot Act has had a positive impact on America’s counterterrorism efforts by enhancing its national security and expanding its capabilities of surveilling and persecuting terrorists.

Despite its effectiveness in countering terrorism, the USA Patriot Act has raised concerns about civil liberties. There is an opinion that the government’s expanded abilities to gather intelligence pose a threat to citizens’ fundamental constitutional rights, especially the right to privacy (Bjelopera, 2013). However, it is necessary to weigh the costs of terrorism against the costs of counterterrorism before coming to the conclusion that counterterrorism efforts are less worthy than civil liberties. Although terrorism acts occur not that often, they result in a large number of casualties and loss of resources. Therefore, the government’s intrusion upon citizens’ privacy is sometimes a compulsory measure to prevent losses much greater than civil liberties. Yet, the government always has to balance national security and civil liberties.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Role in Combating Domestic Terrorism

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for protecting the country from various national security threats. The DHS’s role in combating domestic terrorism consists in coordinating preparedness activities to respond to terrorist acts and recover from them, monitoring terrorism activities, assessing risks, and activating response mechanisms (US Department of Homeland Security, 2019). DHS consists of various sub-agencies, and some of them, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are involved in counterterrorism efforts. The mission of FEMA is to deal with the consequences of various disasters, and its role in combating terrorism lies in helping the government to respond and recover from terrorism acts (Bullock et al., 2017). ICE’s mission is to secure the nation from cross-border crimes and prevent terrorists from using the country’s immigration system for their criminal purposes.

Vulnerabilities That a Terrorist Would See

Based on the findings discussed above, it may be concluded that the US national security system has certain vulnerabilities that can be noticed by terrorists. First of all, the FBI has limited powers in pursuing surveillance of homegrown terrorists. As was mentioned, FISA allows for surveilling foreign persons outside of the US but prohibits obtaining communications of US citizens and individuals located in the US. Apart from that, it is difficult for the FBI to track individuals who view terrorist propaganda and may be inspired to commit a terrorist act. If such a person is located inside the US and does not communicate his plans to anybody related to a terrorist group, it is difficult to place this person under surveillance. Finally, the FBI employees may fail to respond to terrorist acts quickly and effectively because of issues with staffing and training.


Bjelopera, J. P. (2013). The Federal Bureau of Investigation and terrorism investigations. Congressional Research Service.

Bullock, J. A., Haddow, G. D., & Coppola, D. P. (2017). Homeland security: The essentials (2nd ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann.

Congressional Research Service. (2016). Surveillance of foreigners outside the United States under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

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Department of Justice (n.d.). The USA Patriot Act: Preserving life and liberty.

Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau. (n.d.). Counter-Terrorism and Crime Fighting in Los Angeles. LAPDBLOG.

McAdams, J. G. (2007). Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): An overview. Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Web.

Moy, K. K. (2018). Monitoring inspiration: First Amendment limitations on surveilling individuals who view terrorist propaganda. Stanford Law and Policy Review, 29, 267-290.

Office of the Inspector General. (2019). Audit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s management of its confidential human source validation processes.

US Department of Homeland Security. (2019). National response framework (4th ed.). Web.

Wray, C. (2018). FBI budget request for fiscal year 2019. FBI.

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