As he sought to process the mind-numbing reality of hijacked commercial airliners slashing through the World Trade Center towers in New York, then-acting U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis was in for another shock as he met with top South Florida law enforcement leaders in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Lewis recalled that Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge of the FBI in Miami at the time, told the gathering in Lewis’ Miami office that his agents had no information about the attackers. Law enforcement officials would later learn that 16 of the 19 had lived in Florida, taken flight training courses in the state or entered the United States through Florida airports.

It was a state of affairs that reflected an uncomfortable reality about law enforcement’s role and ability to help fight terrorism in 2001. During other major events, the Justice Department always issued instructions to the 94 regional U.S. attorney offices around the country.

But after the attacks, it was different, “There was radio silence … nothing,” he recalled. “It really was unbelievable.”

The recollections came Tuesday during an extraordinary gathering of all of the past and present U.S. attorneys in the Southern District of Florida since Sept. 11. Their panel discussion, which also included the district’s chief assistant federal public defender, focused on changes in the justice system since the terror attacks. The event was sponsored by the Federalist Society in Miami.

Now a partner at Lewis Tein in Miami, Lewis emphasized how unprepared the Justice Department and FBI were a decade ago. But the onetime public servants, as well as present-day U.S. attorney Wifredo Ferrer and Chief Assistant Public Defender Michael Caruso, agreed that federal law enforcement quickly underwent a massive redeployment of resources and an overhaul in priorities. As it did so, new questions have emerged about the impact on the justice system, the rights of individuals and the policies that should be employed to prevent future acts of terrorism on U.S. soil.

Perhaps more than any other district, a national spotlight glared on the Southern District of Florida. First, because the Sept. 11 attackers had such freedom of movement in the region. Second, the district tried more cases than any other in the nation.

“Right after that, the department did get its act together. It set up for the first time joint terrorism task forces,” Lewis said.

The department “turned on a dime,” completely shifting its priorities, Lewis said. But in doing so, traditional priorities like public corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering, and cybercrimes got neglected.

“There were huge vacuums in other cases,” Lewis said.

On trial during the panel discussion was the effectiveness of the Justice Department, particularly in light of political opposition to the trying of suspected terrorists in civilian courts.

In the collective view of the veteran prosecutors and the federal public defender, civilian courts have a strong record of dealing effectively with terrorism cases, criminal cases that normally would have been prosecuted got short-changed for years, and the volume of immigration cases went up by nearly 10 times in a few years.

Shift Toward Prevention

“It was drilled into us there was nothing more important than preventing another 9/11,” said Marcos Jimenez, U.S. attorney from 2002-05 and now a partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman in Miami.

Throughout the history of the U.S. attorney’s office, prosecuting cases had been the focus. But with criminals willing to give their lives to kill thousands of people, prosecutors suddenly entered the realm of preventing crime, a role they had rarely entertained.

To that end, one of the biggest changes was in the origination of cases. Many that were previously close calls were guaranteed to move forward because of their relationships to potential or real acts of terrorism, Jimenez said.

Citing examples, he noted he directed the prosecution of two Greenpeace activists for boarding a vessel as part of a peaceful protest off the Port of Miami. They were later acquitted.

His office also prosecuted a Cuban man who used fake grenades to commandeer a Cuban passenger plane to Key West. That led to a conviction and a pronouncement by the Cuban-born Jimenez that U.S. courts would not “go light” on hijackers forcing planes or boats to Florida.

The volume of immigration cases exploded post-Sept. 11, but the reoriented focus by federal agencies on terrorism prevention has given citizens a false sense of security, said Michael Caruso, chief assistant public defender in Miami.

“Ninety-nine percent of these cases don’t involve terrorism,” he asserted, noting most involve poor people who left Latin America to pursue the American Dream. “Pre-9/11, if they arrived with a false visa, they were simply sent home. Now, they’re not sent home.”

Civilian V. Military Courts

The prosecutors were unanimous in their opinions about the ability of U.S. courts to try terrorists.

Alexander Acosta, now the law school dean at Florida International University in Miami, oversaw the prosecution of accused terror supporter Jose Padilla while serving as U.S. attorney from 2005 to 2009. Padilla, a U.S. citizen designated as an enemy combatant, was defended by Caruso. Padilla was held in a military brig for three years after being publicly accused by former Attorney General John Ashcroft of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack in the United States.

Public pressure led to Padilla’s release from the brig and a civilian trial in Miami. A jury convicted him on charges he aided terrorists.

“The Justice Department is an agency that should have the flexibility to be trusted,” Acosta said.

He compared and contrasted Sept. 11 and World War II. Because Sept. 11 was so unexpected, President George W. Bush and other Americans did not act with the speed or decisiveness seen in the 1940s. He noted the stark differences between prosecuting terrorists today and how President Franklin Roosevelt went after eight Nazi saboteurs.

“Roosevelt felt very strongly that they be put to death,” Acosta said, but there was no death penalty for civilian conspirators. Roosevelt insisted on a military trial, and six of the eight naturalized citizens died in the electric chair.

Acosta said the circumstances of that case “would shock the conscience and ultimately be unacceptable by today’s standards.”

Neal R. Sonnett, a veteran criminal defense attorney in Miami who represented corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, moderated the discussion and noted the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted more than 400 terrorism cases compared with six by the military.

Terrorism Still ‘Number One’

Jeffrey Sloman, acting U.S. attorney in 2009 and 2010 and now in private practice at the Ferraro Law Firm in Coral Gables, and current U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer also spoke. In recent years, federal prosecutors have been distributing resources more equitably and getting back to traditional crime-fighting, but Ferrer said terrorism remains a top priority.

Americans today are safer and stronger because their agencies are more prepared and the public is more aware, Ferrer concluded. But terrorism still poses a serious threat. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said 86 plots have been foiled nationwide.

“The threat is very real,” Ferrer said. “What scares me more than anything else is the fast-paced, one- or two-person attack that doesn’t take much planning.”

Sloman said: “It’s been a fascinating 10 years to see what our views were and how they’ve changed.” Terrorism “is still our number one priority.”

Adolfo Pesquera can be reached at (954) 468-2616.

The Ferraro Law Firm provides comprehensive legal services. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.