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St. Louis FBI chief reflects on 9/11, terrorism and national security

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 24, 2011 - Dennis Baker, special agent in charge of the FBI's St. Louis Division, says the law enforcement agency has made many improvements -- notably, better inter-agency communications -- since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While more may need to be done, he added, "If we had 19 terrorists coming in the United States and plotting today, they would be caught."

Baker's audience was a standing-room-only crowd at Webster University's Holden Public Policy Forum, who came to listen to him discuss how the agency is dealing with terrorism and homeland security.

His host was former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, who noted that he was in office on Sept. 11, 2001. "I got the phone call," said Holden, recounting the stunning and sobering news about the initial attacks in which commercial airliners were flown into both towers of the World Trade Center. Another plane dove into the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

(Holden observed that many Missourians fail to recognize that the state, like many of its Midwest neighbors, faces more terrorist threats than they may realize. Besides the Arch, Missouri also is home to several major military installations and a nuclear plant, the former governor said.)

Baker said that 9/11 dramatically altered the direction of the FBI. Before the terrorist attack, he said, each geographical jurisdiction of the agency set their own law-enforcement priorities.

Since 9/11, Baker said, all FBI jurisdictions have the same three top priorities:

1) "Preventing another terrorist attack;"

2) "Preventing foreign agents from entering the United States;"

3) "Blocking cyber-crimes."

After those objectives have been addressed, Baker said, each FBI office can use any remaining resources to deal with their region's other law-enforcement concerns.

Information-sharing between the nation's 14 different federal agencies charged with law-enforcement and homeland security "has improved dramatically,'' Baker said. For example, many major city police departments have received security clearances so that the FBI can share pertinent information, while also working together with local law enforcement on many key cases.

The FBI "gets a tremendous amount of calls on cyber-crime,'' Baker said, but has limited resources to address the problem. As a result, it has to triage the cases based on the perceived threat.

In battling terrorism, the agency often finds itself "kind of pulled in different directions,'' he said, as it fields allegations of either doing too little or too much. For example, some say the FBI unfairly targets domestic Muslims, while others accused the agency of failing to heed warnings about a radicalized U.S. Army major who killed 13 and wouned 32 at Fort Hood in 2009.

That case exemplifies Baker's belief that when it comes to fighting terrorism, "the threats have become more homegrown threats."

At the same time, Baker said FBI officials keep in mind that their agency's actions must be in line with the U.S. Constitution and that the public's rights must be protected.

As he put it: "The FBI must respect the limits of its power."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.