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.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security, Terrorism,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Charles says:

    What you are losing here is that once a national security agency is created, once an apparatus is put in place, it can never be uncreated. If you think it is tough to get rid of entitlement programs or mundane civil service bureaucracies, try to seriously argue to Congress that we are too protected and can cut costs by eliminating part of our intelligence infrastructure. You’d never win your next election.

  2. john personna says:

    You know the old joke about advertising?  Half my advertising money is wasted, I just don’t know which half.
     
    If we are just talking about nuts and bolts of terror strike prevention, I’m sure something similar is true.
     
    But.  The big picture “overreaction” charge can be true too.  I mean, Stiglitz is still out there with his $3 trillion total for the Iraq war:
     
    http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2010/09/stiglitz-and-bilmes-the-true-cost-of-the-iraq-war.html
     
    Was Iraq part of the commitment (in blood and money) we needed?  I think not.  Containment is looking better and better in retrospect.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    “The fact that al Qaeda is in the sorry state Zakaria describes in his opening paragraph is testament to that.”

    Jim, if it’s in such a sorry state why are we fighting a war in Afghanistan; why are several hundred people a month dying in terrorist incidents in Iraq; why have we and the entire west created an absolutely vast physical and electronic infrastructure to prevent airline attacks domestically and internationally; why have we created a huge internal security apparatus made up something like 1500 different agencies to collect info and conduct security ops that is now gathering so much info it can’t be digested; why do airports get shut down when some guy dodges security to kiss his girlfriend; need I go on. Obviously we need to take sensible measures to protect ourselves but we’ve gone completely overboard (as we always do). Much of this, not to mention all the Islamofascism, caliphate, global war against muslims and other inventions from our neocon friends, has been entirely counter productive.  

  4. John Burgess says:

    Hmmm… OSS surely got shut down, and rather promptly at that. CIA is a shadow of itself now. In fact, I’d argue that it’s on its way to being put out of business, or at least shrunken so much that it’ll be getting a new name soon.
     
    Other organizations have taken on part of its tasks and new tasks have been identified. The intelligence bureaucracies aren’t static, though change can sometimes be glacial.

  5. john personna says:

    Here is a Heritage article claiming that Homeland Security doesn’t get enough, at $56B.
     
    http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/02/the-fy-2011-homeland-security-budget-spending-doesn-t-match-the-missions
     
    Obviously the bulk of our terror fighting is “over there.”  Yes there are important civil liberty issues with how that $56B and similar spent, but to understand where our reaction really is, follow the trillions.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    What is the operative definition of “”over-reacted” and what is its unit of measure?  If we’re measuring solely in dollars, we should probably remember that a very small cadre of attackers wreaked more than $100 billion dollars of direct costs in a single day on 9/11 and indirect costs (excluding additional security) in the trillions.

    Note, too, that it was politically necessary that we do something in response to the attack and the “something” would have to be dramatic.

    In my view we haven’t over-reacted so much as mis-reacted.  I think that practically everything we’ve done since the attacks from indemnifying the airlines against the consequences of their own folly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were errors and have been saying so since the attack.

    We should have de-centralized security rather than centralizing it.  We should have focused more closely on the direct state supporters of terrorism than we did (Saddam was one but only one).  That’s just for a start.

    I think that one of the great problems for those (like me) who hold the position that invading Iraq was a mistake is that, if you take Al Qaeda seriously (something that we were impelled to do following the attacks), we’ve got to recognize that the attacks were part of the price we paid for containing Saddam.  Saddam needed to be contained and, rather obviously, what we were doing wasn’t working.

  7. Andy says:

    @James,
    “But let’s not pretend that we got nothing in return. ”
    I don’t think anyone is; that’s a bit of a strawman.  You can argue that you shouldn’t have been using a machine gun to kill a fly without disputing that the fly is indeed dead.
    I suppose the right likes to argue that it was so important to kill that fly that no cost is/was too high.  But for all the reasons articulated in the article and the comments it seems clear that a less emotionally reactionary approach would have likely been more profitable.
    (Remember the conservatives who were saying after 9/11 that it must have been Divine Providence that Gore wasn’t President?  Usually implying that he would have committeed and studied the situation to death instead of Just Acting Strongly.  At the time I wondered what was so wrong with thinking things through.  Glad to see I’m not alone.)
    I should add that it’s a little unfair to put down someone’s essay as “linkbait” and then essentially agree with him.  Especially when it’s a debate vitally worth having.

  8. john personna says:

    I think that one of the great problems for those (like me) who hold the position that invading Iraq was a mistake is that, if you take Al Qaeda seriously (something that we were impelled to do following the attacks), we’ve got to recognize that the attacks were part of the price we paid for containing Saddam.  Saddam needed to be contained and, rather obviously, what we were doing wasn’t working.

    I’m not sure how this works, Dave.  Saddam and Al Queda hated each other, right?

  9. john personna says:

    Looking back at the links, there were no shortage of people trying to make the direct connection, but I’ll take the 2008 Pentagon summary:
     
    “No link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda”
     
    http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gMrbOB26rqC1rDocYemjluC58zaA

  10. john personna says:

    (If you were referring to Gulf War One, I get that.  Bin Laden reacted to US troops on Saudi soil.  And so it was an aftershock.  That wouldn’t of course justify Gulf War Two.)

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    Overreaction?  How many terror related arrests have taken place since 9/11?  Fort Hood?  I’m not sure the bureaucratic agencies are helping all that much but we’re not overreacting.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure how this works, Dave.

    Containing Saddam had three components.  The first was the “no-fly” zone in the north, the second was the troops stationed in Saudi, the third was sanctions.

    Those things resulted in an enormous increase in our troops in the region and yet another reason for those who hated us in the region to hate us.  Bin Laden specifically said that the reason for the attacks was our troops stationed in Saudi.  How direct a connection can you get?

  13. Steve Hynd says:

    “more than $100 billion dollars of direct costs in a single day on 9/11 and indirect costs (excluding additional security) in the trillions.”

    Got a cite for those figures, Dave? The first one I believe (and would note it’s equivalent to the costs of a mere 200 soldiers in Afghanistan for one year) the second one I don’t.

    Regards, Steve

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    Got a cite for those figures, Dave?

    Check the drop in stock market values.  The figure on indirect costs is frequently described as “incalculable”.

    Here’s one suggesting a reduction in economic growth of $300 billion in each of the following years.

  15. The Jeopardy answer is : “NOT EVEN A DOLLAR”…

    The Jeopardy Question?”WHAT IS NEWSWEEK REALLY WORTH?”It’s clear we overreacted to 9/11. by Fareed ZakariaSeptember 04, 2010Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, on…

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    “And, whatever amount of stovepiping now exists it has to be less than that which existed prior to 9/11.”

    That may or may not be true Jim but count me sceptical given we’ve created hundreds of new organizations many of which are private and from what I know of intelligence, info is very much the source of your power and influence. Add to this the fact that so much data is now being gathered that the agencies themselves are admitting they don’t even read all of it, I’m not sure how this represents a quantitative improvement. My personal view is that Al Quaeda was never as large and powerful as claimed. It certainly was never an existential threat as many were claiming in days of yore when they were comparing it with Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire and the media were hyping this nonsense as they always do. They are today what they’ve always been, a nuisance, a serious nuisance that needs to be taken seriously, but we’ve spent a lot time chasing flies around the room with sledgehammers and broken a lot of family furniture in the process. 

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    “In my view we haven’t over-reacted so much as mis-reacted. ”

    This is really a distinction without a difference Dave. The problem fundamentally was that domestic politics largely dictated how we reacted to this both in the passive sense that we had to be seen to be doing something and in the active sense that there were those who saw political advantage in what they thought was going to be an aggressive foreign policy without much cost. They were completely wrong of course because it’s turned out to be some of the most expensive foreign policy debacles in our history. Some German historian (whose name eludes me) after the first world war said the same about the foreign policy of the German empire before 1914 and christened it suicidal statecraft. 

  18. ratufa says:

    We have a populace that is both risk-aversive and terrible at judging the probabilities associated with risks, a political party that likes to use national security as a cudgel with which to beat the other party (and the other party tends to go along to avoid seeming weak), a growing national security apparatus that, like all institutions, will lobby for its continued existence, a widespread inability to recognize many of the motivations behind terrorism (e.g. the conflation of Al Qaeda with Islam, or the hostile reaction by many to Ron Paul’s description of the causes of 9/11), and grandiose ideas about our power to change the world (hint: regime change is much easier than changing people’s culture and attitudes).

    What could possibly go wrong?

    On the other side of the coin, we needed to do something about Al Qaeda after 9/11, and we needed to improve both our intelligence gathering capabilities and our ability to respond to intelligence. Also, risk control is not just about probabilities, but expectation, and the risks of nuclear terrorism have to be taken into account when deciding the size of our anti-terrorism efforts.

  19. john personna says:

    As I said Dave, I got the impact of US troops in Saudi.  In this paragraph though you tie it to invasion:
     

    I think that one of the great problems for those (like me) who hold the position that invading Iraq was a mistake is that, if you take Al Qaeda seriously (something that we were impelled to do following the attacks), we’ve got to recognize that the attacks were part of the price we paid for containing Saddam.  Saddam needed to be contained and, rather obviously, what we were doing wasn’t working.

    The damage was done from  that troops-in-Saudi standpoint before the invasion decision was taken, hence my question about “one of the great problems for those (like me) who hold the position that invading Iraq was a mistake is that …”

    That horse had left the barn.
     

  20. john personna says:

    We have a populace that is both risk-aversive and terrible at judging the probabilities associated with risks …

    I agree.  I did get some grief for this position in the past though.

  21. </blockquote>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?</blockquote>
    The inability to cause another 9/11 is the result of two minor changes: reenforcing cockpit doors and the fact airline passengers would no longer remain passive during a hijacking attempt.  One of these the government wasn’t even responsible for.

  22. How I look at it:

    Let’s suppose that without the changes made since 9/11, terrorism was worse.  Ridiculously worse.  Let’s say as a worse case that without the post 9/11 security steps, and attack on the scale of 9/11 occurred in the US every single month.

    Even with thousands of Americans dying in terror attacks every month, you would still be statistically more likely to die in a car accident then in a terrorist attack.

    So generally when someone says “We need to do X to fight terrorism”, I think to myself how I would react to someone proposing the same thing as a means of combatting bad driving.  I generally realize that a politician who suggested, for example, that the government needs to be able to imprison bad drivers indefinitely without trial would be considered completely bonkers.  It’s no less bonkers when they suggest it for terrorism, other than the fact that we have a grossly irrational fear of terrorism.

  23. Dave Schuler says:

    This is really a distinction without a difference Dave.

    “over-reaction” = did too much

    “mis-reaction” = did wrong stuff

    It’s possible we did both.  I definitely think we did the latter.  Is it possible that doing that right stuff would have cost as much as doing the wrong stuff did?  I don’t know.

  24. steve says:

    “Containing Saddam had three components.  The first was the “no-fly” zone in the north, the second was the troops stationed in Saudi, the third was sanctions.”

    We have had troops in Saudi Arabia dating back to before Desert Storm. That was a long running issue. Agree on the sanctions I think, though I think that is more of an after the fact justification. I am not sure AQ really cared that Iraqis were suffering from sanctions.

    I think the whole Iraq war was an overreaction. We continue to overspend for the level of threat we face. I am not sure we should ascribe the stock market losses to 9/11 or WorldCom and the dotcoms popping.

    Steve

  25. Tlaloc says:

    This argument is overlooking the exact purpose of this kind of terrorist campaign- to provoke an over-reaction that costs the greater power more harm than the terrorists could ever inflict by themselves.  From this perspective Al Qaeda went dark for a simple reason- they’d won.  We went out of our way not only to expend stupid amounts of money (which contributed hugely to our current economic despair) as well as alienating allies (both in and out of the middle east) and helped further AQ’s recruiting by engaging in open crusade against muslims both at home and abroad.
     
    The proper response to terrorism is not to freak out which we definitely did post-9/11

  26. anjin-san says:

    When discussing the mis/over reaction to 9.11 by the Bush administration, we need to keep in mind that Bin Laden’s stated goal is to destroy our economy. Hopefully we will continue towards a policy of investing in our own country and our own people.

  27. […] moderate conservative – James Joyner – offers […]

  28. Eric Florack says:

    What is the operative definition of “”over-reacted” and what is its unit of measure?

    Any action of which the left disapproves. IN this case, any military action.
     
     

  29. john personna says:

    But Eric, can I really trust you to know what’s “left?”
     

  30. anjin-san says:

    > IN this case, any military action.
    More horses__t from the master. Bush’s initial military enjoyed broad support for Democrats. His subsequent bungling, followed by outright dropping the ball to pursue the PNAC agenda in Iraq in favor of legitimate national security interests, not so much.

  31. Ben Wolf says:

    Dave, the study you cite estimates $300 billion in lowered growth TOTAL, not each year, and acknowledges that the attack was probably not the only factor.  Furthermore, many of the costs in the study didn’t come directly from the 9/11 attack, but from our reaction to it.  $125 billion in costs from the overreaction that was Iraqi Freedom (now $800 billion and counting).  Another $53+ billion building a vast, out-of-control intelligence program (now almost $400 billion.  I won’t even bother to add in the costs of the Afghan War.

    The majority of the costs were the result of our decisions following 9/11, and not the result of the actual attack.

  32. Ben Wolf says:

    Eric,

    Careful, your myopia is showing.

  33. […] At least Fareed Zakaria wrote an interesting column with the same theme, which I discuss at some length in “Overreaction to 9/11?” […]

  34. […] At least Fareed Zakaria wrote an interesting column with the same theme, which I discuss at some length in “Overreaction to 9/11?” […]