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Opinion: We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the emerging threat environment

We must never forget what happened 20 years ago on 9/11 and what must be done to ensure it never happens again


A key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission Report was improved information sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement about common threats.

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Two decades ago, we faced one of our nation’s worst days when 2,977 people were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This week, there will be several commemorations throughout the country honoring the memories of those who perished. A common refrain at these events is “Never Forget.” This, of course, means never to forget the fellow Americans we lost that September. As important, it must also mean never forget what happened that day and what must be done to ensure it never happens again.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it became clear that preventing another attack would require better communication among local, state and federal public safety agencies, increased homeland security, and a new strategy for addressing terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.

Twenty years later, from my vantage point as sheriff of a large urban county, I have seen too many signs that suggest we are forgetting the lessons of that day. This amnesia is leading to an erosion of our security infrastructure that puts Americans at risk. We must not re-learn the lessons of 9/11 the hard way. We cannot revert to a September 10, 2001 mentality. Now is the time to implement the following solutions.

Communication on shared threats

A key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission Report was improved information sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement about common threats.

In the months and years after 9/11, several programs and law changes enabled strong coordination to connect the dots and prevent threats from materializing. As time passed and resources dwindled, open communication has been stifled by bureaucratic barriers and politically motivated legislation that hinders communication.

As an example: After the May 2021 mass shooting at a Santa Clara transit yard, it was determined that local authorities had not been made aware of the shooter’s previous detention by federal authorities. Had locals known about the previous detention in which the shooter was found to have books about terrorism and writings about his hatred of people at the rail yard, they may have been better positioned to mitigate the deadly attack.

To rectify these communication shortfalls, my fellow sheriffs and I are working to restore partnerships and enhance communication with our partners at the state and federal level. In June, I was appointed to chair the Major County Sheriffs of America Intelligence Commander Committee. The Committee is focused on ensuring local law enforcement has timely and accurate information to respond and prevent threats. I believe there is a willingness by our partners to reinvigorate this effort, and I am sure we can be successful.

Secure the border

A permeable border was identified by the 9/11 Commission as a factor that helped the 9/11 hijackers move their plans forward. The failure of the federal government to secure the border is a gift to those seeking to do us harm.

The current humanitarian crisis at the border is overwhelming law enforcement resources. This crisis is being used by drug trafficking organizations, smuggling organizations and others with nefarious intent to their advantage.

Hidden among the families coming to America for a better life are those whose illicit activity seeks to destroy lives. This is illustrated by the influx of the deadly drug fentanyl. Federal authorities report a 4,000% increase in fentanyl seizures over the last three years. While seizures have increased, we know from the growing number of fentanyl-related deaths that what is seized is only a fraction of what gets through. In Orange County, we saw a 1,000% increase in fentanyl-related deaths over the past four years. These staggering numbers, as well as reports of increased human smuggling, highlight risks associated with an open border. The solution is clear: We must address the permeable border with more security and policies that cannot be exploited by those with ill intent.

Reinvest in anti-terrorism resources

The heartbreaking events in Afghanistan are difficult to watch. While people of good faith have differing opinions on whether the decision to leave Afghanistan was the right one, the chaotic nature of our departure will undoubtedly have future consequences.

The 9/11 Commission Report highlighted the importance of rooting out sanctuaries of terrorism. Pre-9/11 Afghanistan was such a sanctuary, and now it appears that it will once again become a haven for terrorists. This reinforces the need for us to be better prepared at home to respond to terrorism, particularly when we have seen emerging domestic threats from individuals with extremist ideologies who use violence to further their twisted agendas.

Federal funding for local terrorism prevention efforts is critical. The return on investment in these types of local programs is demonstrated through the work of the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center (OCIAC). In 2015, OCIAC was instrumental in the arrest of two Anaheim men who planned to join ISIS. Both men were sentenced to 30 years in prison for conspiring to aid a foreign terrorist group. This is the maximum allowed under the law. Unfortunately, federal resources for these necessary programs have been on the decline since 2008. Congress and the President should reverse course and ensure local government has the resources we need.

It is often said that 9/11 was a wake-up call for Americans; a realization that our freedom and way of life are not guaranteed. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the emerging threat environment. The best way to honor the memory of the 9/11 victims is to remember those lessons. By taking the necessary actions today, we can ensure no future days of terrorist-caused infamy.

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Sheriff Don Barnes was elected the 13th Sheriff-Coroner for Orange County, California in November 2018. He began his law enforcement career with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) in 1989. Sheriff Barnes leads the 4,000 sworn and professional men and women who serve in areas as diverse as Patrol Operations, Criminal and Special Investigations, the County’s Crime Lab and Courts, Coroner’s Office, as well as those who serve in Orange County’s five jails that collectively comprise one of the nation’s largest jail systems.

The Sheriff serves as an executive officer with the California State Sheriffs’ Association (CSSA) and serves as the chair of CSSA’s Technology Committee. At the national level, he is chair of the Major County Sheriffs of America’s (MCSA) Intelligence Commander Committee. In that capacity, the Sheriff is working to ensure open communication amongst local, state and federal law enforcement regarding threats like terrorism, drug trafficking and cyberattacks.

Sheriff Barnes has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and a Masters in Public Administration. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the FBI National Executive Institute, USC’s CREATE Program on Counter-Terrorism, the Senior Management Institute for Policing and IACP’s Leadership in Police Organizations. Sheriff Barnes has also been an instructor at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Regional Training Academy and adjunct faculty for the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Management School through California State University, Long Beach.