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Since 9/11, ‘Tremendous Progress’ in Homeland Security

There have been plenty of failures along the way, but there’s no question coordination between levels of government has improved over the past 20 years, along with security capabilities for blocking catastrophic attacks.

Firefighters in the streets of New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
New York City firefighters work near Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
(Anthony Correia/Shutterstock)
On Sept. 11, 2001, Brandon del Pozo was a Brooklyn beat cop sent over to Lower Manhattan to help secure and shut down the New York Stock Exchange. By 2005, he was stationed in the Middle East as an intelligence officer for the city, responding to terrorist attacks in Jordan and India to understand what vulnerabilities they might expose in New York.

The path of del Pozo’s career reflects the way the New York Police Department — and the country as a whole — shifted from surprised reaction to aggressive planning and preparation to respond to terrorism.

“9/11 laid bare how much New York City was truly at the mercy of both global events and the protection of the federal government when it came to homeland security and terrorism,” del Pozo says. “The idea that a cell operating in the Middle East could somehow cause thousands of deaths thousands of miles away in New York City — we knew that at an abstract level, but it hit home on 9/11.”

One of the immediate lessons of Sept. 11 was that federal agencies were unable to coordinate their responses — the famous failure to “connect the dots” — and that state and local governments treated homeland security as an afterthought, at best. It would be an exaggeration to say that preparation at the local level amounted to storing jugs of water in City Hall in case of nuclear fallout, but not that much of one.

A year after the attacks, the federal government combined 22 separate agencies into its new Department of Homeland Security. Over the past 20 years, every state has set up an emergency operations center to coordinate disaster response, while cities and counties have integrated police, fire and health department responses in a way that wasn’t true even in New York City on Sept. 11. After the attack, the New York City Police Department built up a counterterrorism bureau that’s one of the leading intelligence agencies in the country.

It’s a long way from a foolproof system, but planning is much better and the level of coordination within and between levels of government is vastly improved. “Homeland security has become a thing that states and all local governments realize they need to deal with,” says Donald Kettl, author of System under Stress, a book about homeland security and politics. “It’s become a far more integrated effort.”

Over the past 20 years, there have been complaints that the nation overreacted — spending tens of billions of dollars each year addressing a threat that kills fewer Americans annually than drowning in bathtubs. And there are long lists of both security failures and harmful fallout, including the militarization of police, the use of torture and the contemporary rise in nativism and xenophobia.

President Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan last month has raised concerns that the country is withdrawing from the global war on terror, complacency taking the place of vigilance against continued threats. “We all tuned out,” says Jason Killmeyer, a security consultant based in Pittsburgh. “The soldiers went over there. They died in reasonably low numbers, which kept us satisfied.”
U.S. soldiers watching over Afghans waiting to be processed for evacuation flights out of Kabul, Afghanistan.
U.S. soldiers watch over Afghans waiting to be processed for evacuation flights out of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 25, 2021.
(Marcus Yam/TNS)
For all that, there’s little question that the nation is not just better prepared but far safer from large-scale terrorist attacks than it was on Sept. 10, 2001. The nature of threats constantly changes and there’s a great deal of harm that can be done even by one previously undetected lone wolf. But the likelihood of al-Qaida, ISIS or any other jihadist group perpetrating a mass attack on American soil is far diminished.

“We have made tremendous progress in keeping Americans safe from a 9/11-style attack,” says Suzanne Spaulding, senior adviser for homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What’s happened in the ensuing 20 years, through the competence of our military and the actions we’ve taken, it appears we’ve gone back to terrorist groups primarily being focused on the near enemy.”

Creating Homeland Security

The nation had been attacked before. In 1998, al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding thousands. Al-Qaida had ties to the Middle Eastern radicals who blew up a van full of explosives at the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six.

Yet the sense of peril was not great. Despite the bombing — and warnings from police experts — New York City placed its emergency command center at the World Trade Center, hampering its efforts on Sept. 11.

The post-9/11 cliché that “everything changed” as a result of the attacks was never accurate, but it came close to being true in terms of homeland security. The Justice Department and FBI had offices concerned with attacks on critical infrastructure, while the CIA ran counterterrorism centers. Still, there were only “pockets of folks” in the federal government, Spaulding says, who were focused on homeland security.

Within days of the attacks, President George W. Bush appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as his homeland security adviser in the White House. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established by Congress in 2002.

“We really needed to bring the people looking at the border in one place — the immigration folks, the border patrol folks — because the big worry then was terrorists coming in from outside the United States,” Spaulding says. “We started thinking about how we can deter, prevent, respond and recover effectively from catastrophic attacks, and what is the range of capabilities and resources with the federal government that could be brought to bear.”

The Impact of Katrina

By 2005, the United States was at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the recurring talking points from the Bush administration was that we were fighting the terrorists over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here.

That year, Hurricane Katrina exposed stubborn vulnerabilities within the U.S. to catastrophic events, including ongoing problems with coordination between the different levels of government. “With the flooding of New Orleans … what you were really dealing with was the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction being used on the city without criminality,” said Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen.

There was plenty of finger-pointing. Federal officials felt that their state and local counterparts couldn’t be trusted, Kettl says, in the sense that they weren’t adequately prepared for disasters, yet blame would be laid at the feds’ feet. When it came to issues such as dirty bombs, federal officials argued they should have primary responsibility, but locals pushed back. “Local governments said, ‘We’re always the first responders, there’s no way we’re going to back off,’” Kettl says.
Aerial view of damage from Hurricane Katrina looking toward downtown New Orleans.
Aerial view of damage from Hurricane Katrina looking toward downtown New Orleans on Tuesday morning, Aug. 30, 2005.
Intergovernmental tensions are never fully resolved. This summer, Greg Abbott of Texas and other governors sent troopers to the border, complaining that the Biden administration was allowing too many migrants to enter the country. The administration said the states have no authority to patrol the border. “I don’t think you could characterize those as cooperative relationships,” says Charles Wise, an Indiana University public affairs professor who worked in intergovernmental relations for the Justice Department.

Nevertheless, Wise says that coordination has gotten better, particularly when it comes to natural disasters. Meanwhile, there’s a much greater sense that the formerly independent agencies within DHS are pulling in the same direction than was true at the time of the department’s birth.

Just as the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act helped unify military command while keeping the service branches separate, DHS now has much greater unity of effort, says Spaulding, a former department under secretary. “The Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection — these are all institutions that have been around a very long time and have their own cultures,” she says. “But they can’t just operate in their silos.”

Who Is a Terrorist?

Over the past two decades, the nature of individuals who have carried out or attempted terrorist attacks in the U.S. has changed. At first, they were foreigners arriving with the intent of doing harm, as with the Sept. 11 hijackers. Then there were immigrants already in the U.S. who were directed or inspired by foreign groups. More recently, the threat has come largely from people born and raised in the U.S. who seized an ideology as a justification for carrying out violence.

Omar Mateen, who killed 49 mostly gay and Latino people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, was an American who called himself an “Islamic soldier.” Is he more of a terrorist than Stephen Paddock, who killed 60 people at a Las Vegas concert in 2017 but pledged allegiance to no foreign group?

What about the Jan. 6 assault on Congress? FBI Director Christopher Wray called that an act of domestic terrorism, although to say there’s not bipartisan agreement on that score would be an understatement. “Jan. 6 was not an isolated event,” Wray told the Senate in March. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.”
Supporters of President Donald Trump on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
Washington under siege. Supporters of President Donald Trump on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.
(Yuri Gripas/TNS)
Regardless of who gets labeled as a terrorist or what their motives might be, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are better equipped to defend against and respond to attacks. There’s greater coordination not only between levels of government but with the private entities that produce large events.

“We’ve done a lot to secure the country,” says del Pozo, the former NYPD officer. “Every civic event, every big cultural or sporting event is viewed through the lens that some outside force could wreak havoc if the city isn’t prepared. That will never change.”

There’s no end to violence. No matter how secure the borders, local radicalism can continue to cause harm to cities. “What we continue to find most challenging is the individual, whether inspired by foreign terrorist ideology, or racially motivated or motivated by domestic politics,” Spaulding says.

But the ability of any group or certainly any individual to perpetrate a mass casualty event on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks has been much diminished.

“To find a lone individual who may be on the verge of committing an act of violence is a very big challenge for the government,” Spaulding says. “It’s a very serious concern, it’s a very serious threat, but it’s not 9/11.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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