Forged in the Fires of 9/11: Partnerships, Challenges, and Lessons Learned 20 Years Later
Remarks prepared for delivery.
Thank you for the introduction, Cynthia, and thank you for inviting me to speak to IACP once again. Obviously, our hearts go out to everyone affected by Hurricane Ida—especially our colleagues in law enforcement and emergency response. And I’m grateful to everyone at IACP for pivoting so quickly and making it possible for us to meet virtually.
In our line of work, confronting and adapting to the unexpected is part of the job. Never was that more true than 20 years ago today—September 11, 2001 was one of the darkest days our nation has ever faced.
Just this morning I was in New York for the memorial ceremony, where family and friends read aloud the names of the nearly 3,000 innocent lives lost that day. Among them were more than 400 first responders—including more than 70 law enforcement officers. The FBI lost two of our own that day: Special Agent Lenny Hatton and former Special Agent John O’Neill. That day, Lenny and John and hundreds more heroic men and women did what first responders always do: They put others before themselves and did whatever it took to rescue people and save lives.
On this solemn anniversary, we resolve once more to “never forget”: to never forget the lives we lost on 9/11, to never forget the colleagues we’ve lost to 9/11-related illnesses since then, and to never forget the incredible bravery and sacrifices of our police, firefighters, and emergency personnel.
But there’s one more thing I know you’ll agree we should never forget—the spirit of unity and shared purpose that brought our nation together on September 12 and in the weeks and months that followed.
We in law enforcement and intelligence also felt that incredible spirit of solidarity in those days after 9/11. We’d always known that partnerships were important in our profession—but after that day, we realized they were something we couldn’t function without. To prevent more 9/11s, we knew we had to build even stronger partnerships, work together even more closely, and share information even more seamlessly.
We’ve spent the last 20 years doing just that, together. And the changes we’ve made and the hard work we’ve done over those two decades have helped keep our country safe. That’s something we should all be proud of.
Still, we can never rest on our laurels, because the threats keep shifting, and the challenges keep coming. So this afternoon, I want to talk to you about some of those challenges—and why the deeper partnerships we forged in the fires of 9/11 are so critical to confronting the threats we’re up against today.
Twenty years ago, 9/11 forced those of us in law enforcement and intelligence to take a hard look at ourselves. At the FBI, we asked ourselves—what did we miss? What could we have done better to stop the attack before it happened?
Because of that terrible day, the Bureau transformed itself in ways that have made us stronger and better—and our country safer. And we couldn’t have done it without your help.
We became an intelligence-driven, national security and law enforcement organization—one that collects, uses, and shares intelligence in everything we do. We developed new capabilities to combat the terrorist threat. And we changed our focus from investigating terrorist plots and attacks after the fact, to stopping them before they occur.
We built more integral partnerships with our law enforcement and intelligence community colleagues—starting by expanding and strengthening our task forces. They’ve grown, in fact, thrived in collaboration with hundreds of your departments nationwide, as we continue the critical work of protecting our country in a post-9/11 world. And in field office after field office, I see and hear how seamlessly our task force officers and agents work together.
Time and time again, when we’ve disrupted would-be terrorists before they strike; those cases have been driven by your frontline observations and your eagerness to share that reporting. That’s why our partnerships remain paramount in the fight against terrorism. And that includes our partnerships with community leaders, which we’ve also worked hard to improve since 9/11.
September 11 also taught us painful yet crucial lessons about the need to avoid complacency, and the need to keep innovating—because, as 19 hijackers armed with nothing more than box cutters showed us, the bad guys never stop innovating.
All these years later, the FBI still feels the ripple effects of the evolution in how we tackle our work. And not just in counterterrorism. We’ve applied the lessons we learned from 9/11 to every FBI program and every investigation, in every community we serve.
Current Terrorism Threat Picture
Of course, even as we all evolved in how we combat terrorism, the terrorist threat itself evolved as well.
Two decades after 9/11, we still face threats from al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist groups that want to carry out large-scale attacks here in the United States and around the world. Some of those groups, like ISIS, use social media both to spread propaganda and to recruit and inspire followers to attack wherever they can, in whatever way they can. We also continue to track state-associated groups, like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that pose threats both at home and abroad.
But we also know that today’s terror threat is different from what it was 20 years ago.
Today, the greatest terrorist threat we face in the U.S. is from lone actors. These include not only homegrown violent extremists, who take inspiration from foreign terror groups and ideologies, but also domestic violent extremists—especially racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists. Far too often, we’re seeing people resort to violence to advance their ideological, political, or social goals. That’s why, throughout the last year, the FBI has significantly surged resources to our increasing number of domestic terrorism investigations.
Bottom line: 20 years after 9/11, preventing terrorist attacks remains the FBI’s top priority—now and for the foreseeable future.
Violent Crime Surge
But even as we counter the terrorism threat, we’re staying laser focused on violent crime in our cities and communities. Mass shootings, gun violence, homicides, and aggravated assaults are all occurring at an appalling rate across the country, along with an uptick in reported hate crimes.
Today’s violent crime situation is hellishly challenging—and for the Americans caught in the crosshairs of this surge in violent crime, it’s just plain hell.
Like in Louisville, where homicides went up 92% in 2020—and are on pace this year to eclipse that, with more than 20 of those murder victims innocent children. Or in Dallas, or Milwaukee, where aggravated assaults are up—with Milwaukee, in particular, on track to surpass their 2020 rates for homicides, shootings, and carjackings, all by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, gangs in places like Memphis, Louisville, Chicago, and Oklahoma City are establishing narcotics pipelines to traffic heroin and other drugs throughout the Midwest and South. And in Phoenix, local gangs are working with transnational organized crime groups, helping them traffic people, drugs, and firearms throughout the Southwest.
Everyone listening to me knows all too well that the violent crime surge in our country is real and growing. It’s taking the lives of too many innocent people, tearing apart too many communities, and denying too many Americans their basic right to feel safe in their own homes and neighborhoods.
Now I realize I’m preaching to the choir—because we all know that at all levels of government, our most fundamental duty is to safeguard people’s right to live without fear of violence. To meet this duty, we in the FBI know we’ve got to stand in lockstep with our law enforcement partners, now more than ever. And I can assure you we’re using all of our tools and working strategically with our partners to face the violent crime surge head-on.
FBI Resources to Tackle Violent Crime
Across the country, we’re determined to tackle violent crime together through our FBI Violent Crime, Safe Streets, and Safe Trails task forces. Just last year, our Safe Streets Task Forces made more than 6,000 arrests, seized more than 4,000 guns, and dismantled 80 violent gangs across the country.
To build on those task force efforts, in the coming months, the FBI will deploy new rapid response teams to some of the places hardest hit by the increased violence. We’ll be sending agents and intelligence analysts, surging resources and leveraging the intelligence we gather from violent crime investigations to help crack down on violent gangs and disrupt multi-state criminal enterprises.
As we confront the massive rise in violent crime, at the FBI it’s all hands on deck—with every part of the Bureau, not just our violent crime task forces, sharing intelligence and resources to help our state, local, and tribal partners.
The FBI Lab is providing forensic analysis and testimony, shooting incident reconstruction, and support for searches of the 20 million DNA profiles in our National DNA Database.
The FBI-led National Gang Intelligence Center is supporting investigations with timely information on gang migration and criminal activity.
Our CJIS Division is working 24/7 to provide crucial data through systems like NCIC, NICS, and Next Generation Identification.
Our Critical Incident Response Group is deploying command post operations, tactical response, crisis negotiation, and behavioral analysis.
And our Victim Services Division is standing by to provide operational and victim support in crisis and mass-casualty events.
In all these ways and scores more, you can count on the entire FBI to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in the fight against violent crime.
The recent violent crime surge is a big challenge for all of us, and the way we’ll meet it is with the same intelligence-driven, partnership-grounded approach that we’ve used successfully against the terrorist threat since 9/11.
Threats to Law Enforcement
Unfortunately, it’s not just dangerous out there for the people we protect and serve; it’s also dangerous for our officers, agents, and deputies. I want to sound the alarm again about another kind of emergency—one that threatens the very people Americans rely on to keep them safe.
Over the past year, we’ve seen a surge of violence against the law enforcement community. In just the first eight months of this year, 50 law enforcement officers have been feloniously killed on the job in our country—that’s more than in all of 2020. Let me say that again, there have been 50 officers murdered this year while doing their job to keep their communities safe.
I know some of you are all too familiar with the pain of losing your own in the line of duty. We are, too. Earlier this year two of our special agents, Laura Schwartzenberger and Dan Alfin, were shot and killed while serving a search warrant in Florida. And in July, one of our longtime task force officers, Detective Greg Ferency of the Terre Haute, Indiana, Police Department, was shot and killed in an ambush right outside one of our offices. Three of our own, murdered in just a few months.
As I never tire of telling people, it takes an incredibly special person to put his or her life on the line for a total stranger, day after day. When I started this job a little over four years ago, I made a point to know when any officer is murdered in the line of duty, so I can call the chief or sheriff of that department to offer the FBI’s condolences and support.
Since August 2017, I’ve made more than 200 of those calls.
Enough is enough. As a country, we cannot blind ourselves to the sacrifices that law enforcement officers make every day. All of us—their law enforcement colleagues and the citizens they died protecting—owe these dedicated public servants a debt of gratitude.
Given all we’re up against, it’s no wonder that many of your officers feel beleaguered, underappreciated, and under siege. Which is why I want to turn to an issue that’s sometimes hard to discuss, but vital to address—and that’s the mental health and well-being of our people.
Our officers and agents offer a lot of the best humanity has to offer. Courage. Selflessness. Honor. But to do their jobs, they have to confront the worst that humanity has to offer.
That kind of ongoing stress and pressure is a lot of weight to carry, day after day. It’s likely one of the reasons suicides have become an epidemic in law enforcement—and hardly any agency is immune. Last year, there were 174 officer suicides in our country.
We need to figure out exactly what’s going on. That’s why the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program is establishing a new data collection effort to better understand and prevent suicides among current and former law enforcement officers. Agencies can submit information about their officers who have attempted or died by suicide—and getting that information from all of you and the rest of our partners is essential.
Because when it launches next year, UCR’s collection will include data on the circumstance and events before each suicide and attempt. The results—that intelligence—will be crucial to understanding the problem and finding solutions before it is too late.
But even more importantly, just as we do in every other battle, we need to draw on our partnerships. In this case, that means being the best possible partner to colleagues who are hurting and getting rid of the stigma that stops folks from seeking help.
These aren’t 9-to-5 jobs with 9-to-5 pressures. So we need to tell our people it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to admit that—because that’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of real strength. And we shouldn’t wait. Taking care of ourselves and one another should be an all-the-time thing, not just something we think about when things become unbearable.
We want all our people around for the long haul—the country needs them around for the long haul—so let’s make sure we’re getting them the help they need, and let them know we’re going to stand beside them, every step of the way.
Our Work: The Right Thing in the Right Way
Since becoming FBI Director, I’ve tried to drive home the importance of always doing the right thing, in the right way. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a fitting reminder of why that’s so important.
9/11 showed us just how much is on the line in our work, how we’re always just one attack away from a tragedy will change people’s lives forever. Millions of people we’ll never know are counting on us to do our jobs well—to get it right.
After 9/11, appreciation for law enforcement and our fellow first responders was near-universal. Folks understood that our work was about doing the right thing, and they recognized the nobility of our mission. A rising generation saw that, and as a result, scores of young people chose to pursue public service, including in law enforcement.
Twenty years later, we have fewer and fewer people who either worked for us during 9/11 or joined our ranks because of 9/11. It sounds hard to believe, but we now have agents and analysts joining the FBI who were only in elementary school when the 9/11 attacks happened—and in a few years we’ll be hiring folks who weren’t even alive on that fateful day. So we need to make a special effort to ensure that September 11 and its lessons don’t become some historical footnote—especially in the current environment, when the negativity surrounding law enforcement has made recruiting tough for so many departments.
There’s no question that law enforcement remains a noble profession. And I truly believe that—although sometimes it may not seem like it—folks still recognize and appreciate the sacrifices our people make.
As a new generation enters our ranks, it falls on those of us who lived through the post-9/11 transformation of our work to show them why it’s so crucial to do things the right way. That takes a lot when your work is as hard and consequential as ours is—from precision and rigor, to uncompromising integrity, to following the facts wherever they lead, no matter who likes it. It also means setting aside concerns about who gets credit, and focusing on impact.
We’ve all seen firsthand how the shift away from turf battles and stove-piping, to sharing intelligence and strengthening our partnerships, gets results that keep people safer. And now the young men and women in our departments, who listen to and learn from us, don’t know any other way than that post-9/11 shoulder-to-shoulder approach.
That’s how it should be. That’s how it needs to be. 9/11 should always remind us that we can’t go back to the old ways. Because when we work in the right way, together—when we combine our unique capabilities and authorities, our strengths and assets—we’re so much stronger than when we do the job alone.
I began today by recalling the solidarity and spirit of September 12, and the enduring resilience of this country and of our law enforcement family. There’s perhaps no better symbol of that resilience than the Survivor Tree, which stands as part of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
A month after the terrorist attacks, recovery workers discovered a Callery pear tree buried in the rubble of the Twin Towers. It was badly damaged, its roots snapped, and its branches broken and burned. The tree was dug up from the ruins and placed in the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. They replanted it in a park in the Bronx, where it wasn’t expected to survive.
But over the years, that pear tree recovered. It was returned to the 9/11 Memorial back in 2010. Today, smooth limbs extend from the tree’s gnarled stumps, clearly showing the line between the tree’s past and present—before 9/11 and after. It stands at the memorial as a living reminder of our country’s enduring spirit and resilience.
Like that tree, our law enforcement family has its own clear line in our history—before 9/11 and after. We learned hard lessons from that terrible day. And we’ve experienced our own rebirth—one that has helped us to better protect all the people who are counting on us.
Thank you all for your leadership, and your partnership with the FBI. And thanks for listening to me today.