U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What

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Yesterday I attended a book discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center on U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What, co-authored by Amb. Edward Marks and my old CTBlog colleague Michael Kraft.

To this TerrorWonk, who is obsessed with how organizations work (among many other things) this event was a real treat. The authors attempted to provide an overview of the different counter-terror functions of the U.S. government. This is not an easy task, and while their volume will be useful they readily admitted that this work is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the important challenges is understanding that lots of the government’s counter-terror capabilities are dual-use.

There are offices that are strictly devoted to counter-terror missions (such as the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. But there are many more offices that serve counter-terror functions while also serving other functions as well. The Treasury offices that enforce financial sanctions are very important for counter-terror also place sanctions on criminals and other malefactors. Special Forces have a major counter-terror mission, but the perform multiple other functions as well. The FBI is a leading domestic counter-terror agency, but it also fights regular crime (of which, unfortunately, there is no shortage.) Finally there are many more agencies that have a smaller counter-terror component. The NIH and first responder agencies are good examples, in that in the event of a terror attack they would have a role to play – but for the most part they have very different missions. Natural disasters and disease outbreaks are far more common then terror attacks. Of course, it is a natural law of bureaucracies to move to where the money is and when terrorism is a hot issue, agencies discover their relevance to it.

The 9/11 attacks highlighted failures of coordination both in operations and the intelligence community. But, the US government is an enormous, sprawling system and much coordination relies on the personal relationships at the Assistant Secretary level, of course the authors wryly observed that government officials can spend so much time coordinating that they never get to do their jobs.

During the Q&A I asked a question about one of my particular obsessions, the 1986 Vice Presidential Working Group on Terrorism where my two leading public policy interests collide! The authors confirmed what I had read, that the working group established a number of valuable policy recommendations, but that they had not been implemented- nor were they implemented in later terrorism commissions. They also spoke well of the vice president’s role overseeing the task force as important to keeping the project on track, providing political cover, and resolving difficult issues.

Organization charts, standard operating procedures, and nuts and bolts of legislation may not seem to be the most exciting aspect of counter-terrorism (as opposed to drone strikes and special forces) but it is essential. The ways in which government agencies respond to challenges is shaped by their institutional capabilities and the U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What is an essential guide to what those capabilities are.

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