Many people – national security and law enforcement officials, think-tank analysts, and frontline agents and operatives – have said, in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, that they weren’t surprised when they learned the United States had been attacked by terrorists. In the months leading up to 9/11, warnings abounded, from sources both inside and outside the country. In hindsight, these warnings – and many more items of information – paint a clear and urgent picture of exactly what had been planned. For those charged with protecting the United States, one of the tragedies of 9/11 was that their work, and the work of their allies and partners at home and abroad, had produced all the information needed to foil the attacks. The information simply never appeared on the same desk, all at the same time.
In many ways it seems Americans are only just beginning, through careful reflection on the laws, policies, and institutions established over the past decade, to understand the ways in which we’ve changed.
If the fact of the attacks was unsurprising, the scale of them – the deadliest ever on U.S. soil, killing nearly 3,000 people – stunned everyone. The violent images of 9/11 have haunted our national consciousness and divided both the history and culture of the United States into two different eras, the pre- and post-9/11. In many ways, we’re not the nation we might have been if the attacks hadn’t happened, a circumstance that, for American society, is probably neither wholly bad nor good. In many ways it seems Americans are only just beginning, through careful reflection on the laws, policies, and institutions established over the past decade, to understand the ways in which we’ve changed.
A New Department
While the failure to “connect the dots” before 9/11 is most often attributed to a lack of coordination between the nation’s federal law enforcement (FBI) and intelligence-gathering (CIA) communities, the government’s most conspicuous response to 9/11 – the formation of a new Cabinet agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – was an attempt to coordinate far more than these activities.
DHS, formed in November 2002, was charged with a broad mandate. Combining 22 agencies from eight of the 13 federal departments, the new department was responsible for securing the nation’s borders, ports, transportation systems, and infrastructure; for protecting the public from terrorist attacks, including those using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons; and for coordinating the federal response to man-made and natural disasters.
Such a mandate was – and is – a tall order, perhaps the most complex and challenging ever assigned to a single federal civilian agency. In 2011, as the 10-year anniversary of the attacks approached, the department itself was at the forefront of those asking: What had been achieved? What could it do better? What remained to be done?
The most obvious yardstick for the department’s performance was the report released by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, released in July 2004, to evaluate the circumstances that led to 9/11 and to identify ways to guard against future attacks. The report’s 41 recommendations provided a baseline for the department’s own progress report, “Implementing 9/11 Commission Recommendations,” released in the fall of 2011.
As the nation marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to outline the department’s achievements, as well as the challenges that remained.
The secretary’s own assessment – tempered by the acknowledgement that much work remained to be done – was emphatic: “Ten years later, there is no question that America is a stronger and more secure nation. We have bounced back from the worst attacks ever on our soil, and made progress on every front to protect ourselves.”