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Watch Suspect America: What are suspicious activity reports and how are they used?

Twelve years after 9/11, the country continues to debate how to balance privacy and the fight against terrorism, a debate accelerated by recent revelations about snooping by the National Security Agency. How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves against another attack? We explore some of the questions surrounding national security.

1. Since a massive Department of Homeland Security reorganization a decade ago, how effective are counterterrorism efforts?

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security established the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, designed to assess terror threats and intelligence gathered for domestic security. But a decade later, the federal government has made little progress in improving communication between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as CIR reporters G.W. Schulz and Andrew Becker reported in a 2011 CIR investigation.

Based on internal records and documents, the investigation found that “despite a clear mandate from Congress and hundreds of millions spent on personnel and technology, the office has fallen far short of its mission and done little to improve the accuracy and quality of the nation’s intelligence data.”

Years later, questions remain regarding the goals of the National Security Agency and Homeland Security and how to establish metrics for determining the nation’s security.

2. Who should be singled out by authorities?

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Watch: An inside look at the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy (produced by The Nation, via The I Files).

One of the front-runners to replace Janet Napolitano, who announced her move from the Department of Homeland Security to the University of California system, is Raymond Kelly, the commissioner of the New York City Police Department. The department’s stop-and frisk policy allows officers to stop pedestrians on the street, question them and search for weapons. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg has touted stop and frisk’s role in curbing crime and murder rates, many say the policy unfairly targets blacks and Latinos. Last month, a New York judge agreed, ruling that it violated the constitutional rights of minorities.

In 2011, CIR and NPR reported on a little-known program that addressed this question of who deserved to be singled out by authorities in the aftermath of 9/11. Under this counterterrorism initiative, authorities at the Mall of America were able to stop and question anyone who looked suspicious. Our report found that security guards at the mall stopped and questioned on average up to 1,200 people each year.

The report also described a major post-9/11 legacy: “Organizations and individuals are now encouraged by U.S. leaders to watch one another and report any signs of threats to homeland security authorities.”

3. What has the Border Patrol done to fight terrorism?

Another agency in the counterterrorism game is U.S Customs and Border Protection, parent agency of the Border Patrol and the largest law enforcement agency in the country. The agency, which started out with 472 officers in 1925, has ballooned to 21,000 officers in 2013.

While the Border Patrol has told Congress that counterterrorism is its main priority, a recent CIR report found that the Border Patrol primarily busts Americans with small amounts of drugs along the border.

But that doesn’t stop the agency from asking for more resources. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would allocate $40 billion to the Border Patrol to secure the border as part of comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation would double the size of the Border Patrol.

“The cost issue has always intrigued me, as it does with any story,” Schulz said in a Reddit chat. “We’re already spending gobs of money employing agents, investing in sophisticated surveillance technology and building fencing. Now we’re considering spending billions more as part of a compromise on immigration reform. But as numerous watchdog offices have said, the Department of Homeland Security isn’t very good at developing metrics that show how successful it’s been.”

For more on the border, check out our investigative series Crossing the Line.
police militarization arming america graphic part 1 photo

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reproting Program; Officer Down Memorial Page,
funded in part by the Burearu of Justice Assistance. Brian Cragin/California Watch

4. How have local police responded since 9/11?

Over the past 12 years, the Department of Homeland Security has allocated $34 billion in grants to states, some of which has been used to buy military-style equipment, a 2011 CIR investigation found. As a result, local police forces in communities across the country have procured a $300,000 pilotless surveillance drone (Montgomery County, Texas), $400 ballistic helmets (East Baton Rouge, La.) and $180,000 bomb robots (Des Moines, Iowa), to name a few.

Despite resources to better arm law enforcement, we still see mass violence perpetrated within the U.S., including events in Boston; Newtown, Conn.; and Aurora, Colo.

Interactive: See how much your state spent on local homeland security.

5. How willing are Americans to give up civil liberties for national security?

With 9/11 also came a shift in how we perceive civil liberties and security. As more details emerge about the National Security Agency’s collection of phone and Internet data, more Americans are rethinking how much we’re willing to give up for security.

But this was not the case immediately after 9/11. A Pew Research Center survey conducted one year after the attacks found that “more than two-thirds of Americans say the government should do everything it can to keep information out of terrorists’ hands.”

In July, a Pew poll on sentiment regarding National Security Agency surveillance found that most Americans “say that federal courts fail to provide adequate limits on the telephone and internet data the government is collecting as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.”

We saw this tension play out in Oakland, Calif., in July, when the city voted to accept a $2.2 million federal grant to expand a citywide surveillance program despite public outcry. The federally funded Domain Awareness Center program would allow law enforcement to monitor activity by using license-plate readers, gunshot detectors, Twitter feeds and other data.

For our full coverage on homeland security by G.W. Schulz and Andrew Becker, visit our project America’s War Within. You can follow Schulz and Becker on Twitter at @GWSchulzCIR and @ABeckerCIR.

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Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.