“The road to 9/11 again illustrates how the large, unwieldy U.S. government tended to underestimate a threat that grew ever greater,” proclaims “The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States.” The 2004 report documented failure in the CIA, FBI, and INS but as the report concluded: “We see little evidence that the progress of the plot was disturbed by any government action.” (Emphasis added.)
True to form, the response to an attack in some ways “more devastating than Pearl Harbor” was to make government bigger and more unwieldy.
The Department of Homeland Security, launched in 2002, combined “22 different federal departments and agencies into a unified, integrated Cabinet agency.” The new department, President George W. Bush said at the time, was “the most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over a half-century.” But there was precedent for the expansion.
President Jimmy Carter was also concerned about bureaucratic inefficiency, so in 1978 he worked to create a new bureaucracy, the Senior Executive Service. SES bosses, under the control of political appointees, “operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 Federal agencies.” Then-U.S. Representative Herb Harris (D-Va.) warned that the SES “will open the door to politicization.” That was also the case with the DHS.
In 2009, DHS under Janet Napolitano released “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic And Political Climate Fueling Resurgence In Radicalization And Recruitment.” The document warns of “white supremacist” types that are “hate-oriented” or “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority.” These deplorables might wonder how the mighty DHS performed with Islamic supremacist types.
The DHS failed to prevent terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, San Bernardino, California, in 2015, and Orlando, Florida, in 2016. These were all cases of mass murder by Islamic jihadists, inspired by terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. As “Lessons from Fort Hood” explains, Major Nidal Hasan was communicating with al-Qaeda terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki about killing Americans. The Washington office of the FBI inexplicably dropped its surveillance and Hasan went on to murder 13 soldiers. For the composite-character president David Garrow described in Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, it was “workplace violence,” not even gun violence.
“It is perhaps obvious to state that terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks in the United States if they are unable to enter the country,” noted “9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” released in 2004. By this time 20 years ago, the report explained, the al-Qaeda team “demonstrated the relative ease of obtaining a U.S. visa and gaining admission into the United States.”
Prior to 9/11, the terrorist travel report notes, “no agency of the U.S. government thought of border security as a tool in the counterterrorism arsenal.” Indeed, even after the 9/11 attacks, “border security still is not considered a cornerstone of national security policy.” Commission staff believed “it must be made one,” but it wasn’t, and in 2021 there is a new existential problem at the border. The visas the 9/11 attackers so easily obtained are no longer even necessary.
“Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies,” the 9/11 Commission report contends. “It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.” That is indeed happening, but not in the way the commissioners intended.
“Summary of Terrorism Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” a DHS briefing released earlier this month, warns of “grievances over public health safety measures and perceived government restrictions.” The DHS also cites “ideologies or conspiracy theories on perceived election fraud and alleged reinstatement, and responses to anticipated restrictions relating to the increasing COVID cases.” The DHS also warns of “amplified conspiracy theories concerning the origins of COVID-19 and effectiveness of vaccines.” No word whether these “perceived” problems present any cause for legitimate protest.
DHS now deploys against ordinary Americans who pose no threat and seek only to exercise their constitutional rights. The United States government is now more bloated and unwieldy than ever. Those conditions have consequences.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, with Afghanistan once again in the hands of the Taliban, recall what national counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke told National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on May 29, 2001: “When these attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.”