Overreaction to 9/11?
Fareed Zakaria argues that the fact al Qaeda has not launched a major attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 proves we overreacted to those attacks. I beg to differ.
In a linkbait column for Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria argues that “It’s clear we overreacted to 9/11.”
Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda’s best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.
I do not minimize Al Qaeda’s intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength. In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy. In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.
But, surely, part of the reason al Qaeda went from being able to pull off a string of epic terror attacks to a shell of its former self precisely because of our actions after the 9/11 attacks? We’ve killed or captured hundreds of their leaders and killed thousands of their operatives. We’ve made obtaining materiel and financing much more difficult. We’ve driven their planners underground, making it much harder for them to coordinate. (For that matter, engaging the Soviets in an arms race and various attacks on Saddam’s infrastructure in the 1990s helped make our dire predictions become false.)
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.
No doubt much of this was overkill. I opposed DHS from its inception. But my main concerns are about waste and the impact on our domestic freedoms. But what’s the evidence that all this hasn’t helped in thwarting attacks from al Qaeda? Certainly, some would-be attacks were in fact thwarted.
This new system produces 50,000 reports a year—136 a day!—which of course means few ever get read. Those senior officials who have read them describe most as banal; one tells me, “Many could be produced in an hour using Google.” Fifty-one separate bureaucracies operating in 15 states track the flow of money to and from terrorist organizations, with little information-sharing.
But that’s the nature of intelligence! Most everything is seemingly banal. But you have to collect that information to find the kernels of incredibly useful data. And analysts are paid to make connections between the seemingly banal bits to ascertain larger patterns of behavior that our enemies are trying to hide.
And, whatever amount of stovepiping now exists it has to be less than that which existed prior to 9/11. Have we already forgotten the recriminations afterwards, when we discovered how much of that epic plot that we knew about but failed to connect the dots because the information was held by different agencies who wouldn’t share?
Some 30,000 people are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications in the United States. And yet no one in Army intelligence noticed that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had been making a series of strange threats at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he trained. The father of the Nigerian “Christmas bomber” reported his son’s radicalism to the U.S. Embassy. But that message never made its way to the right people in this vast security apparatus. The plot was foiled only by the bomber’s own incompetence and some alert passengers.
These were major league foul-ups. We’ll have more of them in the future, given that human beings run our national security bureaucracy. So what?
Zakaria’s last three paragraphs concentrate on the real issue: The expansion of the national security state has cost us some precious freedom. And I agree! I’ve been arguing that since the earliest days of this blog (actually before, but I can’t prove it). And quite likely the trade-off has been too dear. But let’s not pretend that we got nothing in return. The fact that al Qaeda is in the sorry state Zakaria describes in his opening paragraph is testament to that.