The term “joint” is usually used in discussions about the nation’s armed forces, including the U.S. Coast Guard, and how they are now operating more closely with one another than ever before. Today, each service brings its own unique capabilities, experience, and equipment to the table, presenting a formidable front to carry out an increasing number of multi-service tasks.

In the post-9/11 security regime it is not surprising that the idea of jointness has extended to fighting terrorism by using the combined capabilities of federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies. The federal government has found that success against terrorism is best achieved through close cooperation among the various stakeholders involved. To be truly effective, though, this cooperation must go beyond discussions about the need to exchange information, and into the fields of planning and operations.

One of the most successful examples of implementing this principle is the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), which combines federal, state, and local law-enforcement agents and analysts into a single Each service brings its own unique capabilities, experience, and equipment to the table unit – working, almost always, under the leadership and guidance of a local FBI field office. The idea of creating an FBI-led task force, first used in New York City in 1979 to deal with bank robberies, proved to be such a valuable investigative tool that it started to be used in counterterrorism operations the following year, 1980.

A Constellation of Experienced Professionals

Today, JTTF operations are carried out by just over 100 geographically based task forces, which for operational and chain-of-command purposes report to and through the 56 local FBI field offices scattered throughout the nation; each field office has at least one JTTF under its jurisdiction.

To provide program management and support of the field-office JTTFs, a National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF) has been established within the Counterterrorism Division (CTD) at FBI headquarters in Washington. That office – which is staffed with FBI agents and analysts and approximately forty liaison officers and agents from the intelligence, law-enforcement (state, local, and federal), and public-safety communities – has been assigned the unique responsibility of multi-agency information collaboration and sharing.  

The NJTTF also sponsors a fellowship program that brings state and local law-enforcement agents to FBI headquarters to learn the counterterrorism program at the national level and, in return, provide local perspectives to national initiatives. Here it should be noted that, although the NJTTF provides programmatic oversight and resource support, the local FBI field offices retain operational oversight of local JTTF activities.

Investments, ROI, and More Convictions

The JTTFs obviously represent a significant investment of both personnel and equipment. The nation’s return on that investment also is significant, though, and comes in the form of numerous improvements in interagency coordination and cooperation, a greater sharing of intelligence, and – most important of all – a major increase in arrests and convictions of those apprehended through counterterrorism investigations.

The mission of the “typical” JTTF is to organize, and coordinate the efforts of, federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies that have joined forces for the purpose of preventing, deterring, defeating, and responding to any terrorist attack within the United States. Close coordination with first responders and appropriate principals in business, industry, and the local community in planning, training, and exercising is critical, of course, to implementation of a successful federal counterterrorism program.

The FBI defines terrorism, on its official website, as “the unlawful use of force or violence, by an individual or individuals, against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Beyond these broad areas of emphasis, the JTTFs also focus on special events and activities, symbolic targets, and/or critical infrastructure that could serve as particularly attractive targets for terrorists.

For terrorists, attacks against major special events not only could cause a significant loss of life, but also could create psychological trauma and would attract a high level of media exposure. In recognition of these potentially disastrous consequences, the JTTFs already have been called out in force to help in coordinating the FBI’s security preparations for the Olympic Games, several Super Bowls, the 2004 presidential nominating conventions, and a number of national and international conferences.

Although many of their successes are highly classified, it seems clear that the JTTFs have become a particularly useful counterterrorism tool, and have played a critical role in many significant terrorism investigations. Among the better known JTTF contributions are the conviction of Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Mahmoud Ismail for conspiracy in the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the arrest and prosecution of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid.  

A Few Problems, and Some Possible Solutions

Obviously, there is always room for improvement and greater synergy even in a well-functioning law-enforcement organization. Following is the background on certain problem areas and/or possible changes in the NJTTF/JTTF organizational structure and/or operational philosophy s that have been recommended for consideration by national decision makers:

  1. The success of the local JTTF is directly related to the level of participation and “buy-in” by local law-enforcement agencies. But it is often difficult for smaller agencies to provide a full time member to the local JTTF. This problem is exacerbated because of military reserve recalls and overall difficulties in recruiting (caused, at least in part, by low entry-level salaries). “Losing” a member to a local JTTF is frequently perceived, therefore, as a problem rather than an opportunity. One possible solution is to provide federal funding support to smaller law-enforcement agencies.
  2. Top-level organizational support also is needed to improve the two-way information exchange – which too often is viewed as state and local jurisdictions providing information to the FBI but receiving little or no information from the FBI. (Other federal agencies have voiced the same complaint from time to time.) One solution here would be to develop a system similar to the one used by the Coast Guard, which under federal law permits its Captains of the Port to share sensitive security information (SSI) not only with other agencies but also with the private sector. Under this carefully controlled information-exchange system, representatives of other law-enforcement agencies, and from the private sector, who are considered as having “a need to know” are designated “covered persons” (but only after screening and familiarizing themselves with the protection requirements for SSI materials, as also set forth in various federal regulations). The ability to share essential information not only builds trust between and among stakeholders but also contributes significantly to the synergistic capabilities of the JTTFs involved in specific operations.
  3. Despite the broad spectrum of agencies involved, the JTTFs are not always as flexible as they perhaps should be, and some are considered to be actually quite rigid in their method of operations. That inflexibility could be a major disadvantage in operations against the dynamic and asymmetric terrorist threat. Greater vision is required by leadership at all levels to allow the organizational structure of the JTTFs to have more latitude in responding to the changing nature of the threat. 
  4. Investigative efforts must not over-emphasize threats originating from overseas vice attacks initiated from within the United States itself. Much of the NJTTF’s focus to date has been on preventing evildoers from entering the country. However, numerous reports have suggested that a number of terrorist cells already exist within the United States, and the threats represented by those cells are at least as dangerous as the threats posed by terrorist infiltrators coming in from overseas.
Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is a retired Coast Guard officer. His last assignment was as Coast Guard liaison to the FBI. A former member of the NJTTF, he is now a maritime-security and antiterrorism consultant with Whitney, Bradley & Brown Inc. in Vienna, Va.

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