History is replete with instances of countries being surprised by developments, including large-scale military attacks, that could have been forecast and prevented had the proper governmental structures been in place and had the leaders of these countries acted upon available information in a timely manner. That these countries were caught off-guard, and often suffered terrible losses, despite information indicating that at an attack was probable or imminent is testament to the inherent fallibility of humans. That is why, in spite of the vast governmental changes that followed the attacks on the United States of 9/11, and in spite of the billions of dollars that have been spent in order to prevent another such attack, many analysts consider it only a matter of time before the U.S. is once again surprised by a major act of terrorism.
In many instances, the problem is not identifying the organization responsible for an attack, nor is it awareness that a particular organization might attack. Al Qaeda was a known threat, especially following the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of American embassies in East Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole during a port visit to Yemen. In addition, as the report of the 9/11 Commission made clear, ample information existed indicating that the attack was being planned. [Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004] Yet, the attack was successfully carried out, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Identifying a future threat by a particular organization is a function of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Bureaucratic and legal obstacles to the sharing of information between U.S. agencies, especially between the CIA and the FBI, have been removed, the Department of Homeland Security was established to prevent interagency feuds and to minimize the prospect of miscommunications, the U.S. military has been revamped to emphasize its focus on counterterrorism, and law enforcement agencies have been immersed in a new culture in which the threat of terrorism assumes a higher priority. In short, much has been done to enable the government to identify threats and to prevent them. As noted, however, many analysts believe that another attack will occur despite all of these preventive measures. The question, then, becomes one of response. Because the organization responsible for the attack will almost certainly be known, the expectation would be that the government would plan and carry out retaliatory actions utilizing the military, including Special Operations Forces, as well as paramilitary units of the CIA. In addition, it could be expected that unmanned reconnaissance and attack aircraft – Predator drones, for example – would be utilized against targets hiding or operating in hostile terrain.
Domestically, federal law enforcement agencies would work with city, county and state police and sheriffs’ departments to investigate the attack for the purpose of ascertaining the precise identify of the suspects and to help track them down. As the possibility of a criminal trial involving any captured suspects would exist, the collection of evidence and the interrogation of suspects would be vital to the formation of a legal case.