Are We Safer Today Than Before 9/11?

Report Homeland Security

Are We Safer Today Than Before 9/11?

September 10, 2003 9 min read

Authors: Jack Spencer and Ha Nguyen

On the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks, many are asking the question: Are we safer today then we were two years ago? Unfortunately, a simple yes or no answer oversimplifies a complex situation. Therefore, a conditional "yes" is the more appropriate response.


While confronting and engaging terrorism around the world may increase the likelihood of the United States falling victim to another attack in the near-term, this is a necessary risk to ensure the long-term safety of the nation. It is also true, however, that no terrorists have successfully executed a major attack on American soil since 9-11. Of course, that does not mean an attack will not occur tomorrow, but it is indicative of the progress that the nation has made over the past two-years.


The United States has essentially instituted a policy of defense at home and offense abroad. America's activities can roughly be placed in two categories: the war on terrorism and homeland security initiatives. In each category, the United States has taken concrete steps that will make the nation safer in the long run if the American government and public remain committed to the monumental task at hand.


The War on Terrorism

The United States, along with a broad coalition of allies, is successfully conducting a global war on terrorism. This war is not only being fought with armed forces, but also with economic, diplomatic, financial and political power. And it is being fueled with intelligence. Victories in the war on terrorism that will make the United State safer include:


Eliminating two of the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism. On September 11, 2001 the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. Today, neither is in power, and the United States is a safer place for that reason. A deadly synergy is created when states like Iraq and Afghanistan choose to work with terrorist groups.  States have resources--including territory, finances, an international diplomatic presence, and trade--that non-state actors do not have. On the other hand, non-state actors are able to operate globally and can act largely undetected. The reality of the 21st century is that a state like Iraq could harness its resources to develop a weapon of mass destruction and collude with non-state actors to deliver that weapon. This symbiotic relationship can operate undercover, possibly without the knowledge of the American government. Thus, a state hostile to the United States may appear to be acting within the bounds of acceptable diplomatic behavior while at the same time covertly supporting aggressive endeavors of its non-state allies. This is exactly what both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's Iraq were doing before they were removed from power.


Denying terrorists organizations the ability to freely operate. While it is true that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda still exists, the organization has been disrupted and is on the run. Thousands of terrorists have been detained and/or killed over the past two years. These not only include low-level henchman like Richard C. Reid (the so-called shoe-bomber), but also high-level strategists Khalied Shaik Mohammad, Riduan Isamuddin (Also known as Hambali), and Uday and Qusay Hussein. Furthermore, the enablers of terrorist activity are also under assault. For example, financial flows that were the life-blood of organizations like al Qaeda are being disrupted; there are far fewer gaping security loopholes that terrorists can exploit. States like Saudi Arabia that have often enabled terrorists-if not outright supported them-can no longer ignore such activity.


America is developing a deterrence strategy appropriate for the threats of the 21st century.   Both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban could have predicted that the United States would respond to their attacks, yet they were not deterred. Although terrorists attacked U.S. interests on many occasions prior to that day, and although numerous reports and studies warned of the growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, the United States, for the most part, ignored those warnings. The prevailing belief was that no state would attack the United States out of fear of the consequences; the activities of worldwide, organized terrorist networks were treated as criminal behavior. On September 11, 2001, however, that policy failed miserably. In response, President Bush unveiled the Bush Doctrine, which is founded on the principle that the United States would actively engage, militarily if necessary, rogue nations that support terrorists and develop weapons of mass destruction. The president's description of these states as forming an "Axis of Evil" put the world on alert. While America's anti-terrorist activities in Afghanistan, Africa, the Philippines, and Indonesia have supported this principle, the president's willingness to wage full-scale war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq demonstrated to the world his commitment to uphold this new doctrine. The outcome of this policy is a deterrent that will help compel future states not to directly or indirectly support violence against the United States or its interests.


The United States better understands it own vulnerability.  While many successes over the past two years may make America safer, nothing is as important as America's new willingness to understand its own vulnerability. Until September 11, 2001, most Americans and the American government believed that the United States faced no real security dangers. They largely ignored the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the spread of ballistic missile technology, the increasingly violent terrorist attacks that were occurring against U.S. interests abroad, and the increasingly belligerent and hostile rhetoric being propagated from the Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world. On September 11, however, the United States was forced to reevaluate its own vulnerability. The result was a series of policy changes that address the new dangers that America was facing. However, that was not the end. Indeed, America's policy makers have been continuously identifying weaknesses, oversights, and mistakes. And to the credit of the American people, they have for the most part been patient and understanding. It is also true that politics has snuck into the debate. Some have attempted to undermine the credibility of the president's policies in order to advance their own political agenda. The important point is, though, that the government and the public remain committed to developing strong policies both for security at home and for the war on terrorism abroad.


Homeland Security
Securing the homeland is a massive task by any measure. Making the task even more difficult was the fact that prior to September 11, the functions that are considered under the rubric of "homeland security" were spread throughout the federal government. To bring all of these related agencies-twenty-two in all--under one command, the Bush Administration established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).


This was a major accomplishment in the effort to make America safer. While many of the functions of those agencies remained the same, the homeland security elements of their portfolios emerged as a top priority.


Although the DHS has been moving in the right direction, it will need several years to become truly effective. It needs to continue its efforts to become more organized, develop a national response plan as well as strategies for information technology, intelligence sharing and personnel needs. Congress needs to supply funding for emergency responders, intelligence reforms and critical infrastructure security. Similarly, state and local governments need to develop regional cooperation plans, share information and methods, and work with the DHS to develop a true national emergency response plan. In all aspects, the DHS should invest in human capital and training programs to institute an efficient homeland security process and to ensure that a safer America is on the horizon.


While there is much to be done, progress has been made over the past two years that has better prepared the United States for 21st century threats. These include:


Strides are being made to decrease the loopholes in immigration policy that terrorists have used to gain access to the United States. The United States cannot guarantee that no terrorists will gain entry onto its territory. However, policies are being implemented that make it more difficult for terrorists to enter and easier for authorities to identify potentially dangerous individuals. The terror attacks on 9/11 uncovered many loopholes in the U.S. immigration process. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) at the DHS was established to consolidate all the previously fragmented documentation and investigative functions of immigration. While documenting people entering, exiting, and residing in the United States is important, ensuring immigration flows is essential to the American way of life and promotes economic growth. The BICE has begun numerous initiatives such as the Student Exchange Visitor and Information System (SEVIS) to secure and facilitate legitimate immigration.


Vital intelligence is being shared among government agencies.   Intelligence sharing has been a crucial focus within the DHS as well as in inter-agency relations, especially with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Department of Defense, the State Department and with state and local officials. Initiatives such as the creation of an intelligence fusion center, the Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC), begin to establish a strategic plan for intelligence sharing. However, overcoming cultural barriers between different intelligence agencies and logistically modifying intelligence systems to render them more compatible will take time to research, develop, test, and deploy. Even if much remains to be done, the intelligence reforms that have taken place have allowed the United States to apprehend potential terrorists, break apart terrorist cells, and thwart likely attacks. Since 9/11, authorities have broken up four alleged terrorist cells located within the United States.


America's emergency response capabilities are better prepared to mitigate the consequences of a major terrorist attack. State and local first response agencies, such as emergency medical technicians, are at the forefront of the nation's ability to respond to terrorist acts. In fact, these local agencies will nearly always be first to respond to an incident and will be the determining factor in mitigating the consequences of an attack. The Federal government attempted to streamline and consolidate the grant funding process for emergency responders under the Office of State and Local Government Coordination (OSLGC). Furthermore, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, is working to establish regional offices to better coordinate efforts between federal, state, and local officials.


America has decreased the likelihood that a terrorist will smuggle dangerous contraband into the nation. Over the past two year, America has not necessarily begun inspecting more of what comes into the nation. However, it has implemented smarter inspection procedures. That is to say that inspectors are more able and better equipped to profile what is entering the nation and distinguish between what should be inspected and what should not. The DHS has dedicated a lot of effort to secure America's borders by developing numerous initiatives such as the Container Security Initiative -- through which the U.S. Customs will negotiate and enter into bilateral arrangements with foreign governments to screen U.S.-bound containers at key foreign ports. Up to date, the United States has signed bilateral CSI arrangements with nineteen of the world's top twenty ports. The DHS's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) has also engaged private industry through partnerships to enhance the security of international supply chains. Furthermore, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is currently researching a system to inspect air cargo, still a gaping hole in the system. These programs will not only help secure our borders, but also very beneficial to the industries because tighter security measures will ultimately facilitate and expedite the movement of cargo and containers.


More Work Remains
The events of 9/11 brought Americans to the realization that we need secure our homeland against terror threats. Many immediate steps were taken in reaction to 9/11 in order to prevent another attack. But, given the patience and determination of our enemies - and the fact that two armed conflicts have yet to dampen their enthusiasm for attacking America - it's safe to say we have much more work ahead of us than behind us.


America's enemies have demonstrated their staying power - they spent seven years planning the attacks on New York and Washington - and we must demonstrate ours. We'll have to spend billions of dollars and suffer more casualties before we prevail.


Americans may never been completely safe again, but we can reasonably expect that terrorists won't run our lives or attack us with impunity. We will continue to thrive even as we hound our enemies until they join the Soviets in the back pages of history books.


--Jack Spencer is a senior policy analyst for defense and national security and Ha N. Nguyen is a research assistant at the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom

Ha Nguyen