In the 10 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have done some things right and many things wrong. Yet they have been remarkably disinclined to learn from their mistakes.
To mark the anniversary, many media reports have assessed the impacts of the federal spending and policy changes that resulted from the attacks. In The Times, for example, staff writer Ken Dilanian examined the effects of laws making it possible for federal investigators to collect, analyze and store digital data and other communications from Americans, with little or no judicial or congressional oversight. The extent of this eavesdropping is kept secret, but a handful of high-profile cases have shown that even the once-privileged communications between a defendant and his lawyer are no longer off-limits, and that the ability to obtain a warrant without probable cause is leading to snafus such as the investigation of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, mistakenly considered a suspect in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. That doesn't appear to bother Congress, which in May overwhelmingly approved a four-year extension of the Patriot Act.
Meanwhile, the House in May approved a defense spending bill giving the president the authority to use military force against "Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces" whether they have any connection to the 9/11 attacks or not. That goes well beyond the powers handed to President Bush after the attacks and is in essence an authorization for endless war, against enemies of the commander in chief's choosing. It comes amid military-led nation-building exercises in two countries that have largely failed to create their own democratic institutions despite vast expenditures of American blood and treasure.
The aforementioned wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost an estimated $4 trillion, and the U.S. now spends about $75 billion a year on domestic security. As Times staff writer Kim Murphy reported, a good portion of that homeland security money has been spread around for projects of highly dubious value, such as on cattle prods in Nebraska lest terrorists launch biological warfare against cows, and on an armored vehicle for the Glendale police. Yet even as Congress reassesses spending priorities in other federal departments in its zeal to reduce the deficit, there has been scant effort to examine the effectiveness of these programs or to trim the Department of Homeland Security's bloated budget.
As the Transportation Security Administration approves increasingly intrusive methods of screening passengers at airports, it's growing ever more questionable whether the safety benefits are worth the cost. To prevent terrorists from boarding a plane with plastic explosives concealed inside their clothing, security officials are now using airport scanners to view naked images of passengers. If terrorists adjust to the new regime by hiding explosives in their body cavities, which current scanners can't penetrate, it's reasonable to wonder what new types of probes fliers will be subjected to.
In the arena of foreign policy, meanwhile, the United States has focused extensively and successfully on securing the cooperation of foreign countries in the war against terror. But while doing so, it has ignored other priorities, such as expanding trade or combating climate change, that would have a far bigger effect on future prosperity and thus, arguably, on domestic security.
To be sure, not all of the nation's efforts since 9/11 have been wasted. Al Qaeda's ability to wage attacks overseas has been severely degraded, Osama bin Laden is no more, and untold numbers of dangerous enemies of the United States are dead or detained. There has not been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since that terrible day, which is either a tribute to the effectiveness of our security operations or an indicator of the incompetence of our enemies. Protecting Americans is and should remain a top priority of the federal government. But what rankles is that decision-making on terrorism and security still seems to be dominated by the same sense of panic that took hold in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. After 10 years we have learned quite a bit about what works and what doesn't, yet there has been far too little attempt to change the policies that don't.
As the nation looks back today, and rightly honors those who lost their lives, we'd urge Americans — and especially lawmakers — to put a little thought into looking forward too. Today, the number of people killed annually by Muslim terrorists outside war zones is roughly equal to the number who die in bathtub accidents, according to Ohio State University professor John Mueller, who has written extensively on terrorism risks and expenditures. That doesn't mean fighting terrorism should no longer be a priority, but it does mean we need to be sure that we balance it rationally with other priorities that are equally important.