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By Stephen Engelberg
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.
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.
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