Collection Methods on the 9/11 Attacks


The relations of people in human society are complicated and hard to classify with the help of the rules of rational thinking. Scholars have long been wondering what makes people break laws and act violently towards other people. Therefore, the life of human beings within the society has always been complicated by such phenomena as terrorism and other violent and unlawful actions of people. To fight these actions, the intelligence services are developed in every country, and the United States of America is not an exception (Lowenthal, 2008). The events of September 11, 2001 attracted much attention to the work and collection methods of the US intelligence, and this paper aims at analyzing them briefly but properly. The focus of the current paper will go from presenting and considering the basic definitions on the topic of intelligence collection, through the consideration of the post-9/11 intelligence reforms to the analysis of the current needs of intelligence collection. Having considered what has been done, this paper will suggest certain further steps in respect of the information to be collected and the agencies to be involved in this process.


The very events of September 11, 2001 left much controversy and provided intelligence services of the USA with much work for years on. The essence of those events lied in several terrorist-driven airplanes hitting the towers of the World Trading Center in New York and the building of the Pentagon in Washington (Lowenthal, 2008). The violence of the attacks was worsened by the fact that the attacks on the World Trading Center and Pentagon were carried out in the daylight and were witnessed by thousands of people. The terrorists were reported to have been the members of Al-Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist organization allegedly based in Afghanistan and several other countries and sponsored by the Saudi Arabian millionaire Osama Bin Laden. The information was instantly made public, and the whole country started the detailed and focused search for other Islamic terrorists. The organizations designed especially for the intelligence operations purposes included the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), etc.

Apart from the official intelligence organizations, ordinary people were focused by the powerful media campaigns on the need to fight terrorism by the joint national effort. The practices used by the intelligence before the tragic September of 2001 proved to be focus lacking and inefficient; therefore, these practices, collection methods, and rights of intelligence agencies were modified and extended a lot to ensure the most effective war on terror possible.

Basic Definitions


However, to continue the discussion of the intelligence collection methods implemented after the notorious September 11 terrorist attacks, it is necessary to understand the basic definitions regarding the topic. In other words, the terms like intelligence, collection, and the basic collection method notions should be defined and clearly understood to freely consider the topic of intelligence collection further.

Thus, intelligence is the fundamental term to discuss for the topic of this paper. Among others, Lowenthal (2008) takes his time to consider intelligence and put it in political, military, and especially informational contexts:

Information is anything that can be known. Intelligence refers to information that meets stated or understood needs of policymakers, and has been collected, processed, and narrowed to meet those needs. Intelligence is a subset of a broader category of information. Intelligence and the entire process by which it is identified, obtained, and analyzed responses to the needs of policymakers. All intelligence is information; not all information is intelligence (Lowenthal, 2008, p. 1).

Thus, it is obvious that intelligence is the process of collecting and processing politically or socially relevant information for the further use of this information by the countries’ governments, etc. However, intelligence can be not only government-led as private organizations and even individual people can resort to intelligence help if necessary. Therefore, scope of intelligence is actually comprehensive. Moreover, intelligence is divided into domestic and foreign that deal with investigating and gathering data on domestic or international affairs respectively.


Since intelligence is all about information, collection of the latter is the main activity that any intelligence agency deals with in its work. Other operations adopted by intelligence agencies include information processing, synthesizing, and making conclusions, but collection of data is the fundamental one. Thus, collection is basically the process of gathering the information in which the country’s government or any other customer might feel the necessity. For example, the specialists from Gulf Link (2009) define collection as the process during which “analysts absorb incoming information, evaluate it, test it against other information and their knowledge and expertise, produce an assessment of the current state of affairs within an assigned field or substantive area, and then forecast future trends or outcomes” (Gulf Link, 2009). Thus, being the main element of intelligence, collection is integrally connected to other above-mentioned elements including processing and conclusion-making.

Moreover, intelligence collection is subdivided into two major types that include peacetime collection and wartime intelligence collection activities. The majority of the modern intelligence collection policies fall into the category of the peacetime ones as far as they are implemented by countries during the time when no obvious military conflicts are observed in them or with their participation. However, wartime collection is somewhat different:

Wartime intelligence collection occurs in an environment in which the target on the other side is just as intelligent as we are and is generally doing his best to conceal information, confuse us, divert our intelligence resources, and damage or destroy our collection assets. This all serves to increase the possibility that a particular unevaluated report may contain less than the whole truth (Gulf Link, 2009).

Therefore, collection is the process of gathering the necessary information, mainly for strategic purposes. Needless to say, the collection methods are different as far as the types of information collected vary a lot.

Collection Methods

Thus, collection methods differ according to the information type they are designed to collect. There are five major types of information and respectively collection methods that are traditionally considered by scholars. They include SIGINT, IMINT, MASINT, HUMINT, and Open-source information collection. The first type of collection method mentioned, SIGINT, is based on the processing of the information collected from the communications of other countries’ agencies or organizations. The abbreviation SIGINT stands for Signals Intelligence as far as the information is collected through radars and telemetry devices that allow the intelligence agencies to collect data from intercepted communications.

Further on, IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) refers to the study of images that are accessible or hidden. In other words, intelligence agencies collect information about the appearance of certain people, organizational buildings, etc. IMINT focuses on any possible changes in imagery and the meaning of those changes for intelligence. MASINT is the intelligence collection method focused on scientific procedures of information gathering. Standing for Measurement and Signature Intelligence, MASINT deals with “a broad group of disciplines including nuclear, optical, radiofrequency, acoustics, seismic, and materials sciences” (Gulf Link, 2009). For instance, MASINT is used when the intelligence agency needs to monitor the composition of a water sample or DNA similarities and differences.

HUMINT (Human Intelligence) is the most widely spread intelligence collection method. Its use presupposes the collection of information by people and about people. HUMINT is subdivided into four major types including clandestine source acquisition, overall data collection, debriefing, and official contacts with foreign governments. Finally, Open-source information collection is the gathering of data openly available from media, television, radio, etc. Intelligence agencies usually resort to the combination of the above-considered collection methods to ensure the comprehensive character of information collected for further analysis.

Post-9/11 Changes

Before 9/11

Before the events of September 11, 2001, such a system of intelligence information collection was considered to be an effective one. Since the time of the Cold War, the intelligence operations of the USA were carried out by the FBI that paid much attention to the development of domestic intelligence and counterintelligence programs aimed at defending the national interests. The systems of FBI-led intelligence services became rather politicized, and by the late 1980s the FBI had to make its activities more focused on fighting terrorism:

In 1982, counter-terrorism was designated a fourth national priority for the bureau and in 1986, the Justice Department sanctioned its agents with the power to arrest terrorists, drug traffickers and other fugitives abroad without the consent of the foreign country in which they resided (Chalk and Rosenau, 2003, pp. 4 – 5).

Thus, understanding the permanently growing threat of terrorist attacks, FBI started taking steps to fight it. In the late 1990s, the Counterterrorism Division (CTD) of the FBI was established for the same purposes, but the lack of coordinated work with the CIA, Department of Justice, etc. deprived the above steps of the intended effectiveness: “The Fourth Annual Report of the Gilmore Commission notes a dearth of effective coordination between the FBI, the CIA…as well as serious gaps in bureau’s systematic analysis of terrorist threats in the United States” (Chalk and Rosenau, 2003, p. 6). Therefore, the weakness of the US intelligence and counterterrorism programs was in the lack of cooperation and no clear focus on the potential threats and the means of their prevention. These issues resulted in 9/11 attacks and deaths of thousands of people.

Changes Made

Needless to say, the intelligence system that allowed the tragedy of September 11 to happen demanded serious changes and they were made (The Brookings Institution, 2004). According to the 2001 US Patriot Act, the organizations that were placed in charge of the anti-terrorism campaign were the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the US Department of Justice. The activities of these organizations were not limited by either domestic or foreign intelligence operations and they were allowed to exchange information and cooperate with the CIA on terrorist fighting campaigns (The Brookings Institution, 2004). The structural and functional changes have also been made in such organizations as FBI, CIA, etc.

For instance, immediately after the 2001 tragedy the Counterterrorism Division (CTD) of the FBI was extended to become the dominant counter-terrorism department of the FBI:

Integral to this re-organization has been the creation of an Executive Assistant Director for Intelligence responsible for counter-terrorism and the transfer of 150 counterterrorism personnel to the bureau’s central headquarters in Washington, DC (Chalk and Rosenau, 2003, p. 9).

Such a step was taken to allow better coordination of counter-terrorism work under the control of one responsible official. The assistance to the Executive Assistant Director for Intelligence was intended to go from the “flying squads”, i. e. special detachments set up to react quickly and professionally to the terrorist threats or attacks.

Moreover, the whole network of civil counter-terrorism organizations was established all over the United States. Headed by the National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF), this network included the so-called Counter-Terrorism Watch List (TWL) and was divided into two main sections – Document Exploitation Center and Communications Analysis Center. Further on, the six Regional Terrorism Task Forces (RTTF) and over 60 city-level Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) constitute the local basis for the NJTTF network.

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center was established in 2003 as the result of 9/11 attacks and the obvious need for the US intelligence system to become more focused and coordinated in its joint counter-terrorism campaign. All the above agencies are focused on intelligence collection of all types including SIGINT, IMINT, MASINT, HUMINT, and Open-source information collection.

As for the key individuals involved the in the reform of the collection practices of the US intelligence after 9/11 attacks there was a wide range of people including President Bush and the high ranking officials like George Tenet, the head of the CIA, Robert S. Mueller, the FBI head, etc. whose main task in the situation was to reform the system and provide the US citizens with proper levels of security (Shulsky and Schmitt, 2002).

Therefore, the collection methods of the US intelligence services after 9/11 attacks were considerably changed as far as the FBI, Department of Justice, and the CIA were entitled to carry out comprehensive control over the citizens of the USA, especially the people of Arab origin or those who might have had, according to the intelligence information, some ties with terrorist organizations abroad (Shulsky and Schmitt, 2002). Accordingly, the intelligence cycle was strictly kept to as far as planning was carried out in respect of the government needs, collection was conducted by the increased opportunities of the intelligence services, while the processing and analysis of the data collected were aimed at the final stage of dissemination that had to provide the government with the adequate data necessary for counter-terrorism campaign (The Intelligence Cycle, 2009).

Current Needs

Data to Be Collected

Having considered the state of the US intelligence before and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is now necessary to consider the further improvements that can be made in the intelligence collection system of the United States. The focus here is divided between two major phenomena, i. e. the types of data to be collected more thoroughly and the agencies that should be responsible for the activities connected with the collection procedures. In this respect, it is vital to notice that before the 9/11 events, like Chalk and Rosenau (2003) argue, “human intelligence (HUMINT) was relatively underutilized tool within the FBI” (p. 5). Drawing from this, the FBI is one of the agencies under consideration, while HUMINT is the type of collection that demands serious improvements.

The importance of the focus on HUMINT is evident also in the comparison of the US intelligence efficiency and the work of the intelligence agencies of other countries. For instance, in the United Kingdom or Australia “with a heavy reliance on HUMINT collection, these services work to disrupt terrorist attacks; indeed, they embody the “culture of prevention”, a concept embraced by the FBI only recently” (Chalk and Rosenau, 2003, p. 7). Thus, HUMINT is the main collection type that should be focused on by the US intelligence, but SIGINT, IMINT, MASINT, and Open-source information collection should also be considered carefully.

Agencies to Be Involved

Accordingly, the agencies that should be charged with responsibility for the development of the above-mentioned collection types should be clearly focused and cooperate under the single leadership. An attempt to create such a strong leadership was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its part the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate. All other intelligence agencies “including the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Energy Department, Customs Service, and Transportation Department of the US Government” (Chalk and Rosenau, 2003, p. 12) were to report their findings to the DHS for consideration and taking respective counter-terrorism steps. As intended, the DHS and IAIP Directorate was to obtain all the information collected by intelligence, but the lack of their own collection methods did not allow those organizations to become the leaders of counter-terrorist campaigns. The newly introduced agency established for the same purposes as DHS is the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). It is also intended to have the comprehensive information collected by the FBI, CIA, etc. but the development of its policies is still being carried out. However, the very idea of the uniform organization to be responsible for all counter-terrorism policies is a great step forward in improving the intelligence collection of the US and avoiding the tragedies similar to the one of September 11, 2001.


To conclude, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the world completely. Among other aspects of social and political life, the collection methods of the US intelligence were also changed by the tragedy. The Government and President Bush did much to update and modify the intelligence system of the US and the relative safety of the country since 2001 seems to prove the correctness of the direction taken. However, the possible outcomes of the changed intelligence collection methods could be far worse than they proved to be at once after the 9/11 attacks. The increased power of the intelligence agencies meant they’re being entitled to violate the right to privacy and personal life of every US citizen. The shock after the 9/11 tragedy made it possible for the FBI officials to check the personal data of every single citizen, especially the people from Arabic countries or even the US citizens of Arab-like appearance or origin. This in its turn led to the public protests and the need to change the intelligence collection system once again.

Works Cited

  1. Chalk, P. and Rosenau, W. Intelligence, Police, and Counterterrorism. Assessing Post-9/11 Initiatives, 2003.
  2. Gulf Link. “A Guide to Intelligence.” 2009. Gulf Link: Intelligence Process.
  3. Lowenthal, M. M. Intelligence: from Secrets to Policy. CQ Press, 4th edition, 2008.
  4. Shulsky, A. N. & Schmitt, G. J. Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence. Potomac Books Inc., 3 edition, 2002.
  5. The Brookings Institution. (2004). Event Summary: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of the 9/11 Commission Report.
  6. The Intelligence Cycle. (2009).
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