Catching Terrorists Not DHS’ Job?
Chris Battle is surprised how often he hears the question “How many terrorists has the Department of Homeland Security caught?” He argues that DHS’ job is prevention, not apprehension; that’s what the FBI does.
The implication of the question — usually the questioner already knows the answer — is that the failure to catch members of al Qaeda during the fingerprinting processes at the border, or during Border Patrol operations along the southwest land border, or during the student visa process, or during the airport screening process … the implication is that the tactics implemented by DHS are obviously failing. No terrorists.
It is important to remember, however, that we usually won’t know if the efforts are successful — at least from the perspective of stopping the next al Qaeda operative. It should be remembered that most of the September 11th terrorists who entered the United States did so by exploiting our immigration system. For example, Hani Hanjour, one of the men who helped crash a 757 into the Pentagon, entered America allegedly as a foreign student. He applied for and received his student visa, but he never set foot on the school at which he was supposedly studying. In fact, nobody ever heard from him again until that fateful morning of September 11, 2001.
Had the DHS student visa program been in place at the time, Hanjour’s failure to show up at the school for which he was given a visa would have resulted in an alert being issued to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. ICE would have then investigated the matter. Had they run down Hanjour, he would have been deported.
And he would never have been tagged as a “terrorist.” He would only have been an individual who was caught exploiting the immigration system — like millions of others who do the same.
So, yes, it’s true that few terrorists are “caught” by DHS. It’s also true that few terrorists who are caught will likely ever be known.
That’s fair enough, I think, if the question is being asked as a proxy for “Is DHS doing its job?”
When I ask it, though, I do so as a proxy for “Is this worth the sacrifice in liberty for ordinary Americans?” Chris is right that we’ll never know, for example, how many would-be airline hijackers have been thwarted by the more stringent airport screening procedures implemented after 9/11. We do know, however, that something like 75 million Americans fly each year and that each and every one of them is inconvenienced. That tens of millions of man-hours a year are thereby wasted getting to the airport much earlier than would otherwise be required. That Americans are so frustrated with the new rules that they’ve skipped some 41 million trips that they would otherwise have taken.
Oh, and all of the 9/11 hijackers could have passed through the current screening procedures, albeit possibly not with box cutters. But there are other weapons that would easily pass through – especially if one includes weapons that could be easily assembled aboard the plane.
None of that matters, though, because of two unarguably useful post-9/11 changes. First, we’ve hardened the cockpit doors and implemented procedures to ensure that they’re not opened — no matter what — in the even of a takeover attempt. Second, passengers have learned to go Flight 93 on would-be terrorists. Before 9/11, passengers reasonably assumed that hijackers just wanted to go to Cuba or get paid a ransom or whatever and that the passengers would likely be released unharmed afterward. Now, as Richard Reid’s almost comical attempt to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb demonstrated, passengers will overwhelm a would-be attacker.
That hasn’t stopped the TSA from making everyone take their shoes off to get through security screening, of course.