This story was co-published with The Atlantic.
The turbulent months after the 9/11 attacks were notable for something that did not happen. Even though al-Qaeda had killed thousands of people and scored a direct hit on the Pentagon, hardly anyone in either political party blamed the Bush Administration for failing to defend the homeland. In the burst of patriotism that followed the assaults, President Bush and his aides essentially got a free pass from the voting public. This consensus held even after it emerged that government officials had fumbled numerous clues that might have prevented the attacks. (The Central Intelligence Agency knew two al-Qaeda operatives had entered the U.S. in 2000, but never told the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No one tracked their movements and phone calls, a notable lapse since both men ended up among the 19 hijackers.) Voters had no problem re-electing a president who did nothing after receiving an intelligence briefing weeks before 9/11 headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.”
In his September cover story for The Atlantic, Steven Brill recounts how the political lessons of those early years evolved into an approach he succinctly summarizes as “never again.” Politicians and government bureaucrats understood that the public would not forgive a second, devastating strike. For the administrations of both President Bush and President Obama, “never again” has meant saying yes to any initiative that could be sold as plausible protection against a future attack. The “never again” approach has remained in place even as those who commit acts of terrorism have shifted in recent years to take advantage of the lethal possibilities of the ever-more connected world.
Certainly, some of the government programs created to address vulnerabilities exposed by the 9/11 attacks were long overdue. The U.S. needed a much better system for screening air travelers, one that did not allow people to board airplanes with lethal weapons in hand. And it made sense to harden New York’s underwater subway tunnels to limit the damage a bomb could do to both passengers and the city’s infrastructure.
But for every valid effort, it seems like the terrorism-industrial complex came up with an array of boondoggles that were profitable for the companies involved but added little to the security of ordinary Americans. The upwards of $47 billion spent on FirstNet, the troubled effort to make sure firefighters and police could talk to each other in an emergency, staggers the imagination. Altogether, Brill calculates, the government has spent $100 to $150 billion on equipment and programs that do not work. What might have been accomplished if all of that money had been spent on, say, reducing the cost of a college education for poor and middle-class kids?
“Never again” might have made some sense when the enemy America faced, al-Qaeda, put all of its effort into planning terrorism spectaculars like the simultaneous attack on two American embassies or the destruction of the Twin Towers. The international logistics and footprint required for such operations gave intelligence and law-enforcement officials something to detect.
Unfortunately, as Brill points out, the nature of terrorism has evolved over the past 15 years, much as a virus changes shape in reaction to mankind’s disease-fighting efforts. The threat posed by ISIS relies to a much greater extent on the tools of the networked world.
A generation ago, young militants frequently traveled to war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Bosnia, where they were radicalized by what they saw. Europeans still make that journey to Syria, but the new face of terrorism in the United States looks more like Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the young couple who shot 14 people at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. Using little more than the internet, ISIS has inspired disturbed people around the world to take up kitchen knives, axes, and trucks as weapons in the service of jihad. In many of these cases, the group had no direct contact with the attackers.
For journalists and policymakers who followed al-Qaeda at its peak, it is impossible to imagine Osama bin Laden approving an al-Qaeda operation of such modest dimensions.
Yet, ISIS seems to understand the new possibilities created by social media. And the spate of attacks by self-radicalized jihadis has stirred deep, disproportionate fears among many American voters.
It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s core support comes from voters who fear for their security. The fact that between 40 and 50 percent of surveyed U.S. voters agree with his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants is a testament to how effectively ISIS has gotten inside the heads of Americans. Religiously motivated violence is seen as far more threatening than the mass shootings that punctuate American life, as James Comey, the FBI director, pointed out to Brill in the story. That the San Bernardino shooters were declared supporters of ISIS “generates anxiety that another shooting incident, where the shooter isn’t a terrorist, doesn’t. That may be irrational, but it’s real,” Comey said.
In his article, Brill makes a prediction Americans are highly unlikely to hear from either Trump or Hillary Clinton. “Despite our best efforts, terror is destined to become, yes, routine—a three- or four-times-a-year headline event, perhaps almost as routine in this county as people with mental-health problems buying a semiautomatic and going hunting at a school or movie theater.”
If that’s true, as the mounting tempo of attacks in Europe and the United States suggests it might be, then the unfocused spending of government money guided by the politics of “never again” is something the country can ill afford. Searching for the potential lone wolves among massive populations is a problem of intelligence gathering, not technology. It’s unclear how to detect and deter such an elusive threat, but the answer is surely not better radios or bigger fire trucks.
So, what to do? One answer would be to focus the government’s anti-terror efforts through better Congressional oversight. But there seems to be little chance of that happening. With 119 committees or sub-committees overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, it’s hard to imagine how anything resembling coherence could emerge. As Brill noted, while not a single member or staffer would defend the current system, “everyone I talked with seemed to accept their own bipartisan failure to act as an immovable fact of life.”
In the absence of rigorous oversight, some key, longstanding security weaknesses are being overlooked
Back in 1999 and 2000, I worked with two New York Times reporters, Judith Miller and Bill Broad, to write a book on the dangers posed by biological warfare. In a bizarre coincidence, “Germs” hit the stores on September 10, 2001, just a few weeks before the anthrax letters began making their way through the U.S. postal system.
We researched the book at a time of rising anxiety about the possibility that terrorists, specifically bin Laden, could attack American cities with germ weapons. There were many reasons to worry. Russian scientists had come forward to reveal the extraordinary prowess of the Soviet Union’s research into biological weapons. U.S. officials had confirmed that a relatively low-skilled person could make dangerous quantities of anthrax using easily available equipment.
One essential item the United States lacked was a reliable device that could detect a germ attack as it was unfolding. This is a trickier technological challenge than it might seem; the air is filled with all manner of bacteria and viruses. Shortly after 9/11, the government rushed out a program called BioWatch in which sensors were placed in various cities.
I moved on to other assignments and did not keep track of how this particular counter-terrorism program turned out. Brill followed up, and what he found is disturbing.
Despite all the billions of dollars wasted on homeland defense, no one ever figured out how to detect bio-attacks. BioWatch, which was obsolete the day it was put into use, produced 149 false alarms by 2014, none of which were linked to an attack or public-health threat. The DHS undersecretary for science and technology told Congress that the agency hopes to have a working system in place within “three to eight years.”
In his interview with Brill, President Obama seemed to yearn for an end to the politics of “never again.” “The fact is that Americans are far more likely to be injured or killed by gun violence than a terrorist attack,” the president said. As Brill’s piece makes clear, a more rational conversation about this issue would have to begin with a radical shift in the politics of terrorism. So far, nothing in the 2016 campaign suggests a new approach is in the offing. If anything, the “never again” approach is being reinforced with every news cycle.