Fifteen years ago this September 11, 19 terrorists, using four jetliners as guided missiles, killed 2,977 people—and enveloped the country in fear. It was the first sustained attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which was a far-off military base. This massacre hit the center of our government and blasted away part of our most iconic skyline. It left a stench that New Yorkers could smell weeks later as remains continued to be recovered from the ashes.
Suddenly, we were vulnerable. Not just to disease, tornadoes, accidents, or criminals, but to the kinds of enemies that had always threatened others but never us.
Barack Obama remembers that after the second plane hit, he left the Chicago building that housed his state-Senate office. “I stood in the street and looked up at the Sears Tower, fearing it might be a target, too,” he told me in a recent email exchange, adding, “I remember rocking Sasha to sleep that night, wondering what kind of world our daughters were going to grow up in.” He continued, “With nearly 3,000 people killed in the places where we lived our daily lives, there was a feeling that our homeland was truly vulnerable for the first time.”
This is the story of the first 15 years of how we have dealt with that newfound fear—how we have confronted, sometimes heroically and sometimes irrationally, the mechanics, the politics, and the psychic challenges of the September 12 era.
Have we succeeded in toughening up what overnight became known as “homeland security”? Absolutely. But not without a series of extravagant boondoggles along the way.
Are we safer? Yes, we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us—and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death, and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress.
Have we adjusted, politically and emotionally, so that we can make rational decisions as a government and as a people to deal with the ongoing threat? Not yet. In a bitterly divided democracy, where attention spans are short and civic engagement is low and the potential for oversimplification and governing-by-headlines is high, that is hardly a surprise.
But in those first hours after the planes hit their targets, we did answer the call—which required an almost complete turnaround of America’s mind-set and produced just as stunning a turnaround in our security posture.
Part I: The Good News
On September 10, 2001, then–Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected an FBI request to increase anti-terrorism personnel for the coming fiscal year beyond a fraction of the bureau’s overall staff. The next morning, Ashcroft headed to Milwaukee to read to schoolchildren while his boss, President George W. Bush, was doing the same at an elementary school in Sarasota, Florida.
Also on September 10, FBI officials declared at a congressional briefing that the most imminent domestic terrorism threat was from animal-rights activists. Fifteen years later, the Justice Department has a national-security division, set up in 2006, that has consolidated and fortified all the department’s counterespionage and counterterrorism litigation and related legal-policy decisions. The overall FBI budget has nearly tripled since 2001, and its mission of investigating and prosecuting federal crimes that have already happened has been expanded to stopping terrorists before they strike. Most of the new resources—for intelligence analysts, technology upgrades, and additional agents—have been directed at prevention. “About half” of all agents are now assigned to national security, FBI Director James Comey told me, up from “maybe a quarter before the attacks.”
Connecting the Dots
On September 10, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration, which was responsible for air-travel security, had a watch list of 12 people, even though the FBI and the CIA had identified hundreds more in their databases. A proposal to expand the FAA list to include those additional names had been sitting for months in the inbox of an FAA security official. In reporting for a book about the nation’s recovery efforts in the first year after 9/11, After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era (2003), I discovered that two of the hijackers had been on that expanded list. Distribution of their names to the airlines had been delayed because the FBI and the FAA had not resolved which organization’s letterhead should be attached to the memo bearing the new list.
On the day the World Trade Center fell and the Pentagon was left smoldering, the CIA knew that two suspected terrorists whom it was tracking around the world—and who ended up on the 9/11 planes—had come to the U.S. months earlier. But the agency never told the FBI. When this came to light, the September 12–era phrase failure to connect the dots was born.
Today, all U.S. security agencies share the same watch lists and threat databases, which are constantly updated. They share intelligence tips with one another (though sometimes still grudgingly), and federal officials even sit on task forces with their local counterparts. With some lingering exceptions, we do connect the dots.
Safety in the Air
On September 11, the airlines themselves were responsible for airport-security lines. They employed 16,000 poorly trained, low-wage private screeners, who operated under guidelines, approved by the FAA, that allowed the kind of box cutters and knives (up to four inches long) that the hijackers used. The airlines had lobbied the FAA for these and other accommodations to keep costs down and the security lines moving.
Today, there are 46,000 screeners, almost all federal employees, trained by the Transportation Security Administration. Although management failures have produced security gaps in fast-moving lines, followed by—especially this spring and summer—long wait times resulting from efforts to plug those gaps, the screening process is undeniably tighter than it was on the morning of September 11. And cockpit doors have been fortified to block anyone who slips past the screeners, making a repeat of the 9/11 plot to commandeer planes and turn them into missiles hard to imagine.
In the 1970s, hundreds of federal air marshals—undercover cops in the air—were deployed on American planes to thwart hijackings to Cuba. By 2001, the number of marshals had been reduced to 33—negligible coverage for the more than 20,000 flights leaving 440 airports in America every day. Within a month of 9/11, an emergency program had recruited 600 new marshals, and by 2005 approximately 5,000 were on planes. (The actual number is classified.)
Securing the Ports
When Kevin McCabe, the chief inspector of the U.S. Customs contraband team at the giant Elizabeth, New Jersey, freight port, looked across the water at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and saw the second plane hit, he knew his country was under assault.
McCabe stared out his office window at the pier below, loaded with more than 7,000 cargo containers that had arrived from all over the world, and began what was probably America’s first exercise in post-9/11 profiling. He directed his 70 inspectors to move every container that had arrived from the Middle East or North Africa—about 600 of them—to a far-off section of the pier. They then began the days-long process of X‑raying and, if anything seemed untoward, hand-searching all 600.
The X-rays and searches, however, had always been geared to looking for smuggled drugs. The inspectors were great at finding cocaine hidden in limes from Ecuador. But they had little training in looking for bombs—and little equipment for detecting material that could be used for a radiation-laced “dirty bomb.”
Fifteen years later, every American port screens cargo using billions of dollars’ worth of technology, including radiation detectors. Containers that register high on a threat matrix (based on information sent in advance about the content and its shippers) are singled out for additional screening; many containers are screened in foreign ports by U.S. Customs inspectors before they set sail.
The system is far from airtight. But the port inspectors have come a long way from McCabe’s panicked game of musical containers.
Preparing for a Biological Attack
A week after the attacks, America was again caught flat-footed, when envelopes containing deadly anthrax were sent to several media outlets and two U.S. Senate offices, ultimately killing five people and hospitalizing 17. When Tom Ridge, the Pennsylvania governor, whom President Bush had just recruited to become the White House homeland-security adviser, convened his first meeting about anthrax in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office, he was stunned by the cluelessness of those assembled at the table. There was no playbook. No list of medical experts to call. No emergency supply of antidotes and no plan to produce one.
Today, a collection of federal agencies—so many that, if anything, there is bureaucratic overlap—has playbooks for a variety of biological and chemical outbreaks, and billions have been spent to stockpile antidotes.
Part II: The Spirit of September 12
Beginning September 12, 2001, crash efforts were the order of the day.
Reconstituting the air-marshals program.
Doubling the number of Border Patrol agents.
A Victim Compensation Fund was conceived of and passed by Congress in 10 days and became the nation’s single greatest act of tort reform. To the dismay of many trial lawyers, it allowed victims’ families to seek millions each in uncontested claims directly from the federal Treasury (and also bailed out the airlines).
The TSA was legislated and launched within months, led by a fresh group of recruits from the private sector. They held their first meetings standing in an empty room in the Department of Transportation’s headquarters, clutching laptops—until someone gave up on the glacial government procurement system and went to a local Staples and ordered chairs and desks with his own credit card.
Tom Ridge was emblematic of the September 12 mind-set. He’d been the governor of Pennsylvania for nearly seven years, and loved his work. But he took the job heading homeland-security efforts within hours, on September 19, not knowing where he would live or what his salary would be. This same spirit moved members of Congress to pass piles of bipartisan legislation and assemble on the Capitol steps the night of the attacks, holding hands and singing “God Bless America.”
Video: The Inevitability of Dirty Bombs
Of course, that has changed. The initial September 12 spirit was like a rush of adrenaline. Much of what Americans in and out of government did was extraordinary; in hours worked, helping hands extended, immediate problems solved, they stretched beyond what they might have expected of themselves.
Then the rush subsided. When the headlines—the adrenaline that fuels Washington—died down, Beltway norms returned. Contractors, consultants, academics, and bureaucrats swarmed in to co-opt the new big thing, while the politicians retreated to their respective corners.
In April 2002, working as a reporter, I watched as a spirited band of new recruits got the TSA up and running at its first airport, in Baltimore. They timed passenger throughput, and high-fived each other when it stayed below four minutes per person. When the sun glared through a glass wall, killing the view of a carry-on-bag X‑ray machine, someone found a piece of cardboard to shade it. More high fives.
When I visited TSA headquarters five years later to discuss a business I was starting that would expedite prescreened passengers through the security lines, administrators and other back-office employees—who by now numbered about 5,000, in addition to the 44,000 screeners working in airports—had their own building, near the Pentagon. As I rode the elevator, two people with TSA ID badges got on. One groused to the other that his parking-space assignment was unfair.
“Even I think the pendulum has swung way too far” in the direction of overspending and bureaucracy, says Richard Clarke, the anti-terror chief on President Bush’s National Security Council, who had been derided for being the guy in the White House most obsessed with the threat of an al-Qaeda attack. “Beginning almost the morning after, the consultants and contractors came out of the woodwork.”
Billions of dollars awaited contractors who promised infallible new technology: bio-threat and radiation detectors in towers to catch border-jumpers, upgraded Coast Guard cutters, biometric identification cards, $1 million baggage-screening machines, new data-collection software.
Billions more would go to cities and towns savvy enough to slap a homeland-security label on grant proposals.
A burgeoning industry of homeland-security conferences and trade shows sprang up.
Across the country, colleges and universities went after research grants aimed at everything from how to make office windows blast-proof to how to secure international shipping channels. Academic institutions began offering degrees in homeland security. I counted 308 such programs when I scanned the web a few weeks ago.
“Sure, we’re safer than we were 15 years ago,” says one senior auditor at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), whose 3,000 auditors independently monitor federal agencies. “But we’ve spent hundreds of billions since 9/11. The question is how much of that was wasted and how much should have been used on other programs to address other security gaps.”
Bioterror and "Failures of Imagination"
Here are excerpts from an eye-opening report highlighting one of those continuing gaps, which I bet you never heard about, even though it was issued less than a year ago:
Nine weeks ago, terrorists unleashed insidious biological attacks on our Nation’s Capitol during our Independence Day celebrations. The infectious agent they used ultimately led to the deaths of 6,053 Americans …
We discovered later that other attacks had already begun elsewhere in the Nation, using methods we have yet to identify that spread the disease among livestock in rural communities.
The report then offered a stinging indictment of America’s security apparatus:
The terrorists were successful because the government—including Congress—failed. They took advantage of our failure to achieve early environmental detection of the agent, failure to quickly recognize its occurrence in livestock, failure to rapidly diagnose the disease caused in sick patients, failure to consistently fund public health and health care preparedness, failure to establish sufficient medical countermeasure stockpiles, failure to make sure that non-traditional partners communicate. Ultimately, they took advantage of our failure to make biodefense a top national priority.
Sadly, much as the 9/11 Commission observed in its analysis of the attacks of 2001, the attacks of 2016 occurred because of another “failure of imagination.”
The report was written by an all-star bipartisan panel consisting of, among others, Tom Ridge, the founding secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Joe Lieberman, the former chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee; Donna Shalala, who served as the secretary of health and human services under Bill Clinton; and Tom Daschle, the Democratic former Senate majority leader. They were organized by Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who now works at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. As Vice President Dick Cheney’s national-security adviser, Libby led the country’s bioterrorism-defense initiatives following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks.
No, the attack described in the report didn’t actually happen. Rather, the authors introduced the scenario as something that could happen, because, they wrote, “the threat is real and growing” and “carries with it the possibility of millions of fatalities and billions of dollars in economic losses.” It was meant to be a “wake-up call” to get the nation’s attention, Ridge told me.
It didn’t work. The rest of the report drew on dozens of experts’ testimony and reams of data to present the case for renewed attention and national leadership to address the threat of bioterrorism, which Libby says is “still the most likely game-changing terrorist attack.” Yet the report received scant news coverage when it was issued on October 28.
The Obama administration had the same nonreaction. The panel’s primary recommendation—to put one senior person in charge of consolidating the hodgepodge of agencies that have some role in biodefense—has never been acted on. “I read the report, and I respect it,” Jeh Johnson, the Obama administration’s current secretary of homeland security, told me. “But it’s a lot like everything else I deal with. We have to make choices every day about risk and priorities.”
What a difference 15 years makes. The bioterror threat hasn’t receded; if anything, as the panel pointed out, advances in science and technology have made it easier to launch these kinds of weapons. But the nation’s attention has receded—which is emblematic of the roller-coaster way our democracy and its leaders deal with risks. As suggested by the report’s rhetoric about “failures of imagination,” our imagination is limited to the day’s headlines. Policy makers fight the war that made those headlines, not the war that might come next.
A week before the 9/11 attacks, three New York Times reporters—Judith Miller, William J. Broad, and Stephen Engelberg—published an article in The Times adapted from their book, Germs, a vivid account of the danger of bioterrorism that would be published the following month. After the Twin Towers fell and the anthrax envelopes were delivered, Germs shot to the top of best-seller lists and the media were filled with reports about how a successful biological attack could kill as many people as a nuclear weapon—yet would be far easier to pull off, a point that had been made earlier, by the 1999–2001 commission led by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, whose pre-9/11 warnings about a terrorist attack on the U.S. were widely ignored.
Immediately after the anthrax attacks in September 2001, Libby got Cheney and the rest of the Bush administration behind an urgent biodefense drive. Within months, during which there were several false alarms signaling apparent follow-on germ attacks (including one that officials feared had penetrated the White House), what would become a program costing hundreds of millions was launched to buy dozens of BioWatch detectors. These were deployed at pedestrian gathering places in 20 major cities to collect air samples. By 2005, 36 metropolitan areas were covered.
The instinct to do something, anything, about the threat was understandable. But collecting and analyzing BioWatch air samples could take up to 36 hours. By then, of course, an aerosolized attack could have infected thousands of victims who would have long since dispersed. Besides, samples of only six possible pathogens were even theoretically detectable, and that was only if the offending germs were sprayed close to the detectors.
Worse, it wasn’t clear that even those six pathogens would be detected at any distance. According to GAO reports about BioWatch and a study by the National Academy of Science, the devices had never been tested in real-world conditions, because officials hadn’t determined how to avoid the obvious risks during the testing process. The sensors deployed indoors (at places like Grand Central Terminal) seemingly had a better chance of working than those scattered outside along busy streets. But no one knew for sure whether any of them worked.
A new BioWatch program was launched in 2003 to develop systems that could cut down the analysis process to six hours and broaden the range of threats that could be detected. The effort lasted 11 years and ate up another $200 million in fees to Beltway contractors. But it was canceled in 2014 because the new devices didn’t work.
Meantime, the original sensors are still deployed. Whether they work is still not known; many experts doubt they do unless the aerosol is released in intimate proximity. The continuing 36-hour sample-collection process and related maintenance cost $80 million a year—more than $1 billion over the past 15 years.
As of the end of 2014, the BioWatch sensors had produced a total of 149 alarms—none of which, according to a 2015 GAO report, “was linked to an attack or to a public health threat.” In fact, BioWatch is considered such a dud that local officials routinely ignore any alarms that federal homeland-security officials pass along from it.
“We knew it was a stopgap, but we felt we had to put something out there” at the time, says Ridge, who was the homeland-security secretary until the beginning of 2005. “But 13 years, and nothing better? Come on!”
This past February, when a House homeland-security subcommittee held a hearing on BioWatch, senior DHS officials assured their inquisitors that they were working on the problem. “We seem to be having the same hearings over and over again,” Bennie Thompson, a longtime Democratic subcommittee member, complained.
The subcommittee’s then-chair, Martha McSally, a Republican freshman from Arizona and a former Air Force fighter pilot, seemed more upbeat, until she noted that industry vendors had told her they’d responded to DHS requests for information about possible new versions of the technology two years earlier but never heard back. Reginald Brothers, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for science and technology, replied that he was now sending out still more such requests. Testifying in a near-empty committee room that would have been filled with bioterror-obsessed media 15 years earlier, the undersecretary said his team was engaged in an “exploratory process” and hoped to have a fix in place in “three to eight years.”
“This kind of stuff just drives you crazy. It’s all so slow and bureaucratic,” McSally told me. “We rolled something out in a panic after 9/11 and then it lingered in a substandard place because attention shifted.”
When I asked Jeh Johnson about his deputy’s apparent acceptance of a process whereby exchanges of information with the private sector stretch out over years and whereby a fix to an urgent problem is still three to eight years off, he sighed in what seemed to be exasperation, then offered this: “I can think of a number of instances where the best technology is a ways off.”
“When germs were sexy right after 9/11, they focused on it,” says Judith Miller, one of the co-authors of Germs. “But until someone engineers one of these pathogens and releases it, we’re not likely to do anything more.”
“Jack Bauer Syndrome”
The story of BioWatch’s exercise in hope over reality illustrates what one GAO auditor calls “Jack Bauer Syndrome,” referring to the counterterrorism agent who was featured in 24, the hit TV series.
“If you’re shocked and scared and you know there’s a threat out there, you’ll do anything, spend anything, to deal with it,” the auditor explained, “even if what you spend it on hasn’t been tested and you haven’t even set any standards to evaluate it.”
Chip Fulghum, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief financial officer, who took the job in 2013 and says he considers himself part of a “cleanup operation,” puts it this way: “Right after 9/11, the spigot got turned on and a fire hose of money poured out. Much of it was badly monitored and much of it was for stuff that just didn’t work.”
Multiple programs—salivated over by Beltway contractors, who formed “capture teams” to reel in business—were launched with exuberant announcements, after which they quietly tailspinned into implementation delays, revised promises, and finally failure.
Two billion dollars was doled out to improve the TSA’s screening of checked bags for bombs, but the new equipment yielded no discernible improvement.
Another $1 billion was wasted on a network of motion sensors and camera towers across just a fraction of the U.S. border with Mexico as the first step in what was to be a $5 billion program. When the government awarded the coveted contract to Boeing in 2006 (to replace a failed $2.5 billion program started in 2004), President Bush heralded it as “the most technologically advanced border project ever.” Once deployed, however, the system’s sensors set off alarms when all varieties of wildlife moved around, and its cameras swayed in the wind and failed to provide visibility in areas where the land wasn’t level. The program was finally euthanized in 2011, after which an Israeli firm was brought in to provide a system that apparently works.
Similarly, a $2.5 billion plan to replace drive-through radiation detectors at border crossings with a new model that would cut the high false-alarm rate was killed in 2011 after $230 million in prototype tests showed no improvement.
A long-running contract awarded to Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to build new Coast Guard cutters has so far come in $1 billion above its $4.7 billion budget and four years late.
And a $400 million program (also feasted on mostly by Lockheed Martin) to distribute 3.5 million tamperproof biometric ID cards to truck drivers hauling hazardous material and to workers at seaports and airports was completed five years behind schedule, in 2011. Worse, the ID-card readers have never worked and are not being used, making the high-tech credentials no more secure than a library card.
The granddaddy of all the misbegotten big ideas may be something called FirstNet, a project set up to provide a telecommunications system exclusively for firefighters, police officers, and other first responders that would cost as much as $47 billion.
“Attack 2” Versus a Flaming Bagel
Clarke, the former White House anti-terror chief, has a weekend house in Rappahannock County, Virginia (population 7,400). He says that one Sunday morning a few years after the 9/11 attacks, he burned a bagel in his toaster and his smoke alarm went off. “This monster fire truck with four volunteer firemen—two teenagers and two guys my age—arrived,” Clarke recalls. “They could barely drive the thing. It had a logo on it calling it ‘Attack 2.’ ” Clarke was stunned to find out that the truck, which cost $185,000, had been paid for by a federal homeland-security grant.
“Want to see how your homeland-security money was spent?” a longtime anti-terror official who was one of Tom Ridge’s senior aides asked me. “Go to your local Fourth of July parade anywhere in small-town America and you’ll see a logo on a spiffed-up fire truck or armored police truck saying we paid for it.”
The largesse has hardly been limited to souped-up emergency vehicles. Across the country, small towns have loaded up on everything from a “latrine on wheels” in Fort Worth, to fish tanks in Seguin, Texas (presumably to help counterterrorism cops relax?), to unspecified equipment in American Samoa. In all, more than $40 billion has been spent on homeland-security grants since 9/11.
Everything in the grant applications was linked to terror, an exercise in which the grant writers suffered no failures of imagination. A Senate report documenting this spending found that one law-enforcement website offered “a how-to guide, Tapping Into Federal Funds, advising public safety officials to amplify the frightening ‘what ifs’ in their request for funds by pointing out ‘the worst case scenario’ … that the project for which you’re seeking funds would help.”
The arrival of Attack 2 to extinguish Clarke’s bagel was proof that homeland security had morphed from an emergency mission into politics as usual. When asked during a 2004 Senate hearing what kind of formula governed decisions about who received grants, Tom Ridge, himself a former congressman, replied in a burst of candor that he was looking for something that gets “218 votes in the House or 51 votes in the Senate.” This explains why Congress mandated that each of the 56 states and territories had to receive some grant money, regardless of actual risk of terrorism.
Today, the grants continue, though at a reduced rate, and they are mostly restricted to high-risk metropolitan areas.
Which is the other side of the story.
Money Well Spent
The flow of federal funds to major cities has plugged innumerable security gaps.
In New York City, federal grants enabled newly elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, to set up a 1,000-person Counterterrorism Bureau that includes specially armed quick-response units and intelligence officers assigned overseas.
On September 12, 2001, the train tunnels under New York’s rivers could have been breached by a bomb small enough to fit in a backpack. Thousands could have been drowned. The most vulnerable were PATH trains running under the Hudson River to New Jersey. Hundreds of millions of dollars were quietly allocated to reinforce the tunnels’ roofs.
More federal money went to reinforcing subway tunnels, installing cameras to detect intruders, and assigning undercover officers to ride the trains.
Money from Washington helped pay for the hardening of the Madison Square Garden–Penn Station complex, a venue that had been easy prey for even a small car bomb and that—because it is a high-profile, crowded hub sitting atop crucial subway junctions and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor rail lines—was feared to be a prime terrorist target.
On the Upper West Side, an exposed bit of a pipeline running natural gas up the East Coast was encased in a protective shed, as was a vulnerable water main in the Bronx that could have flooded much of that borough.
'We Will Defend Our Nation': An interview with Barack Obama on homeland security
Federal money helped pay for a team of consultants to work with Kelly’s Counterterrorism Bureau to produce a smartly written manual called “Engineering Security.” Now widely used across the country, it provides those responsible for the security of office buildings and other facilities guidance on everything from gauging the blast resistance of different grades of glass to determining a venue’s overall risk profile.
Washington also paid for cops to be posted at key targets. At the Brooklyn Bridge, according to Kelly, these officers staved off a plot to cut its cables—which intelligence officials learned about when questioning Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s 9/11 mastermind.
Overall, anti-terror money sent from Washington to New York has exceeded $6 billion.
The federal government made similar investments in other cities and other high-profile venues across the country. Joint Terrorism Task Forces—which had previously consisted of small groups of FBI agents, representatives of other federal law-enforcement agencies, and a few local police officers—were beefed up with funding from Washington. The number of detectives and intelligence analysts on Ray Kelly’s task force in New York went from 17 to 120.
In 2001, there were 35 Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country; today, there are 104. The federal government has also funded broader groups of law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies, called fusion centers.
The feds have sponsored drills and other exercises to help state and local police departments, and other first responders, rehearse how they would work together in an emergency. One full-scale, 24-hour exercise in Massachusetts, six months before the April 15, 2013, bombing of the Boston Marathon, is credited with helping officials do such a good job of stationing medical personnel at the site before the event began and mapping out how mass casualties would be distributed to the city’s multiple trauma centers that, amazingly, none of even the most grievously injured among the 264 victims was added to the death toll of the three who died immediately at the scene.
Part III: Washington’s Most Maligned Agency
By my calculation, over the past 15 years, the American government has spent $100 billion to $150 billion on failed or unworthy homeland-security programs and on acquiring and maintaining equipment that hasn’t worked. However, as with the equipment procured for port inspections, launching the TSA, and grants for protecting New York’s subway tunnels and running emergency drills in Boston, much more than that was well spent.
The same mixed verdict applies to the agency created to dole out that money and manage the programs. President Bush’s decision to combine 22 far-flung government agencies into the Department of Homeland Security belatedly followed a primary recommendation of the Hart-Rudman commission, whose warning, in three reports starting in 1999 and culminating on January 31, 2001, about the need for the government to prepare for terrorist attacks had been largely ignored. The details of the reorganization are still being debated. Should the FBI have been left out? Should the Secret Service have been included? But combining agencies such as Border Patrol, Customs, the new TSA, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency into one department responsible for putting the people and systems in place to defend against or recover from an attack made sense, as did enabling the still-separate FBI to gather intelligence in order to stop the people planning attacks or track them down after an attack occurred.
Nonetheless, the result, especially at first, was management disarray and ineffectiveness that could fill a textbook on bureaucratic dysfunction.
DHS—which has had seven undersecretaries or acting undersecretaries for management—has perennially been on the GAO’s list of agencies whose overall management is considered “at risk.” From the beginning, the agencies thrown into the new superagency fought to keep their turf, often calling on congressional allies to help. “At one meeting early on, I mumbled something about why should the Coast Guard and Customs each have their own helicopters and planes,” Tom Ridge recalls. “Why couldn’t they combine to purchase the same stuff? Within a few days, we had calls from Capitol Hill warning us not to mess with the Coast Guard’s or Customs’ procurements.” (The two agencies still have their own air forces.)
Ridge was preoccupied during his tenure with organizing the new agency and launching urgent programs, like the BioWatch detectors and the posting of U.S. Customs inspectors overseas. His successor, Michael Chertoff, a former federal appeals judge and head of the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division, prioritized tighter management, but ended up overwhelmed during most of his tenure by his department’s failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Chertoff, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed, was succeeded during President Obama’s first term by Janet Napolitano, who resigned as governor of Arizona to head the department. Napolitano focused, she told me, on rebuilding FEMA following the Katrina disaster, border security, and the (unsuccessful) effort to pass a broad immigration-reform bill.
Only Jeh Johnson, who succeeded Napolitano when she left to take over the University of California system in late 2013, seems to have made forging a cohesive organization—he calls it “unity of effort”—a priority.
Johnson, who turns 59 on September 11, was the first African American to make partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a New York law firm that has long been a home for prominent Democrats who rotate in and out of government. A former general counsel for the Defense Department, Johnson seems to have become a smart, tough manager. He has made significant progress in rationalizing DHS, which today is a $64.9-billion-a-year colossus with 240,000 employees. But the challenges of fusing so many long-standing independent bureaucracies remain, even 14 years after they were first thrown together.
Dealing with these multiple agencies is further complicated by the fact that DHS’s senior executives and staff are spread among 120 offices, scattered, wherever space has been available, throughout Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Most work far from Johnson’s office, a shabby, converted naval facility in Northwest D.C. that is itself far from downtown Washington. (After many false starts, a closer-in, massive $600 million headquarters seems likely to be built within the next two or three years.)
The Office of Personnel Management’s latest annual survey of employee morale across all government agencies ranks DHS in the bottom tier across multiple measures of employee satisfaction and sense of mission. In a category called “intrinsic work experience,” DHS somehow scored below the Federal Elections Commission, an agency so famously paralyzed by partisan deadlock that its mission has basically been put on hold.
“I really care about that survey, and we’re going to improve those numbers,” Johnson told me. “But it’s going to take time.”
An approachable boss who has made a habit of mingling with his troops wherever he goes, Johnson seems well suited to the challenge. At a town-hall meeting for DHS employees in New York, I watched him connect with those who asked questions, inquiring about their families and then demonstrating that he was immersed in the issues they cared about. Last March, Johnson was a big hit at the Baltimore-Washington International airport when he played undercover boss, acting as a TSA screener.
“I wasn’t planning to be a manager when I came into this job,” Johnson said. “But during my [Senate] confirmation-oversight process, I kept hearing ‘management reform, management reform,’ so this is something I’ve had to focus on.”
Although the GAO recently reported that DHS has made significant progress in tightening management, Johnson still has work to do, starting with customer service. In June, a friend tried to call Customs and Border Protection with a complaint about a Global Entry card that he should have been able to use when entering the United States after an international flight. The line was constantly busy, so he tried the agency’s email complaint system, only to receive a reply telling him that the response time for emails like his was “16–20 business weeks.” I followed up and called three different DHS customer-service lines. No one ever picked up the phone.
Last winter, a House subcommittee hearing about a DHS human-resources IT program produced another installment of a C-SPAN drama that has played out in dozens of episodes since the agency was put together: indignant inquisitors lacerating their witness. Noting that the IT program had so far cost $180 million over 13 years without yet being operational—and that there is no set schedule for when it would be—Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, told Chip Fulghum, DHS’s chief financial officer, that the program was the “poster child for inept management.”
As Perry’s scolding of Fulghum demonstrates, members of Congress in both parties have never been shy about criticizing, even mocking, the Department of Homeland Security for mismanagement and low staff morale. But the longest-running failure of management when it comes to homeland security—a failure that is deliberate, self-centered, and easy to fix—has to do with Congress itself.
When Congress voted in 2002 to consolidate 22 federal agencies into a unified DHS, each of those agencies and their dozens of subunits was overseen by different congressional committees and subcommittees.
“We figured congressional leaders would reorganize things,” says Ridge, referring to how, after the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force were put into the new Defense Department, congressional oversight was consolidated accordingly.
That never happened. “There is no committee chairman or subcommittee chairman or ranking member who will give up jurisdiction over something that they had jurisdiction over, especially something as sexy as homeland security,” Martha McSally, the House subcommittee chair, told me. Thus, four House and Senate transportation subcommittees oversee the TSA and the Coast Guard, but subcommittees of the House and Senate homeland-security committees oversee them too. In all, 119 congressional committees or subcommittees assert some kind of jurisdiction over DHS.
Those committees and subcommittees held 300 hearings in 2011 and 2012 alone, according to a tally compiled by DHS. Each hearing required DHS secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, or agency heads to sit for hours, listening to the members read ponderous opening speeches and then responding to questions. It adds up to one or more senior DHS officials sitting through these hearings about three times a week. And that’s not counting the many more informal briefings conducted for members of Congress.
“It’s outrageous,” says Napolitano. “You get all those directions and priorities from all those committees and subcommittees. It’s a huge burden and a huge waste of time.”
When then-Speaker John Boehner was asked during a December 2014 press conference why oversight hadn’t been consolidated under the homeland-security committees, he chuckled and said, “I’ve been working on this for about six years … It should have been done.”
I could find no member of Congress or congressional staffer willing to defend the current setup. Rather, unlike any other issue when it comes to terrorism—where urgency and indignation at even the slightest failing is the order of the day on Capitol Hill—everyone I talked with seemed to accept their own bipartisan failure to act as an immovable fact of life.
The Duct-Tape Dilemma
Some morale problems at DHS may have less to do with management and congressional harassment and more to do with the nature of DHS’s mission. There are few noticeable victories—but multiple opportunities for failure, embarrassment, and ridicule.
“The FBI are the stars and the DHS people basically are seen as the garbagemen,” Richard Clarke told me. While the FBI, he explains, does high-profile detective work, DHS mostly screens people and things at airports and borders, reviews claims for cleanup grants after disasters, and does the unsung work of advising the private sector on how to protect its infrastructure. Even DHS’s arguably most glamorous agency, the Secret Service, makes headlines only when it fails.
“In law enforcement,” says Johnson, who is a former federal prosecutor, “you get a big takedown and you get a big press conference.” You get headlines like “Eight Charged in Check-Kiting Mob.” But the nature of homeland security “is different. We’re on defense.”
Although DHS mostly makes the news when it fails, it also gets attention when it becomes the butt of comedy monologues about mindless bureaucracy.
Early on, the jokes had to do with color codes and duct tape. Both illustrate the no-win proposition of having a government agency try to deal with the changing impulses of the September 12 era.
The much-ridiculed color codes—public pronouncements that the country was at a green, blue, yellow, orange, or red state of alert—came about because Ridge insisted that federal officials should share threat information with the local police agencies who would be on the front lines. But the information the locals got was leaked, spurring outcries that the public deserved to know at least something about potential threats.
The resulting color scheme, announced in 2002, was derided as so vague as to be meaningless. But it was seen as better than the alternatives of saying nothing or telling everyone, including the bad guys, specifically what the government knew. Ten years after the attacks, the color advisories were abandoned in favor of equally vague but wordy “bulletins” that are infrequently updated on the DHS website, where they are largely ignored but are no longer a source of derision.
Duct tape was about a more important, if equally ridiculed, initiative. In the aftermath of the anthrax crisis, amid growing fears of bioterror attacks, Ridge’s office urged citizens to prepare emergency “ready” kits. One of the suggested ingredients—in addition to flashlights, a portable radio, water bottles, and nonperishable food—was duct tape, which could be used along with plastic sheeting to seal doors and windows so that people could safely “shelter in place.”
This was, and remains, a prudent security precaution. But Ridge and his team were almost immediately lampooned, perhaps because joking about a possible disaster relieved nerves. Of course, if Ridge had discarded experts’ recommendation that he tout duct tape because it could protect people during a bio attack and then an attack had occurred, he would have been denounced for his failure of imagination.
The Agency That’s Always Wrong
DHS’s most visible unit is the Transportation Security Administration, which has more daily interactions with more Americans than any other federal agency. Those encounters are inherently a source of public cynicism: They’re inconvenient, and to many they seem an exercise in bureaucratic rigidity.
In June 2015, news leaked that testers from the DHS Office of the Inspector General had been able to smuggle simulated weapons or explosives through checkpoints 67 out of 70 times at airports across the U.S. Johnson was so incensed that he removed the acting TSA administrator and replaced him with Peter Neffenger, a highly regarded Coast Guard vice admiral. Since taking over, Neffenger has completely redone the TSA training program and required all current staff members to be retrained to focus on the agency’s primary mission—security.
“We were worried too much about throughput,” Neffenger told me. “We had to go back to basics.”
Neffenger said he is also determined to expand the PreCheck program. Launched in 2012, PreCheck provides expedited TSA clearance for the 3 million people (so far) who have agreed to be prescreened. Neffenger is determined to improve its marketing, open more-convenient enrollment centers, and give government officials who already have a security clearance automatic enrollment.
PreCheck is “the most popular thing I’ve ever done in public service,” Napolitano, the former DHS secretary who initiated the program, told me. But it will be popular only until a PreCheck member does something bad—which is bound to happen today or 10 years from today, because no security process is perfect. Making homeland-security decisions based on logical weighing of risks makes sense and avoids public frustration and ridicule—until something bad happens.
As those who have flown lately know, the problem of slow airport-security lines was exacerbated this spring and summer by record air-travel volume and by the fact that three years ago, the TSA began to trim its airport staff. The staff cuts came because letting up on its tight process, which ultimately allowed the inspector general’s testers to slip through with their simulated weapons and bombs, had given DHS the false sense that it could keep the lines moving while getting by with fewer people. Hiring and training to get back to staffing levels sufficient to cut the current wait times while maintaining security will take at least until the beginning of next year.
Costs Versus Benefits
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, fewer people flew, because they feared more aviation attacks. However, once the TSA was operating, people resumed flying instead of driving. According to a study done by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, there were likely 1,018 more traffic fatalities in the three months following 9/11 than there would have been had people believed flying was safe. In other words, the reassurance provided by the establishment of the TSA arguably saved more than 300 lives a month.
Put differently, terrorists can kill 300 people a month by scaring us off airplanes—and that’s in addition to the economic havoc that fear of flying produces.
All of which suggests that judging the TSA’s efficacy—and the claims about the agency’s bureaucratic bloat and its pointless “security theater”—is complicated.
Of course, the TSA gets no credit for those 300 lives a month. Turning that theoretical math into congratulatory high fives is a stretch. But other, more direct measures of homeland-security success are no easier to calculate.
Just before Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma famous for being waste-averse, left office in 2015, he issued a 162-page report on DHS that attacked almost every aspect of the agency for wasting money while “not successfully executing any of its … main missions.”
Coburn’s argument boiled down to a recitation of the obvious: American taxpayers have spent $1 trillion since 9/11 (on DHS and on terror-related work at other agencies), but Americans are still not safe from terrorist attacks. Which is like declaring that a health-care system doesn’t work because people still get sick and die.
“People ask, ‘How many terrorist attacks has TSA thwarted?,’ ” Jeh Johnson said. “We’re never going to know the true answer to that question. I do know that last year TSA seized in carry-on luggage 2,500 guns—83 percent of which were loaded.”
Coburn’s attempt at more-detailed cost-benefit analyses highlighted how complicated that exercise can be. One of his most intriguing critiques was directed at the Federal Air Marshal Service, which, he pointed out, was spending about $800 million a year (equal to about 40 percent of the Secret Service budget and nearly 10 percent of the FBI’s). That adds up to more than $10 billion since the 9/11 attacks. Yet, Coburn wrote, “it is unclear to what extent the … program is reducing risk to aviation security.”
Air marshals are supposed to prevent terrorist hijackings. There have been no hijackings. Why complain about that? Isn’t that the best possible proof that the program works? How do we know how many hijackers were deterred by the well-publicized air-marshal buildup?
Meet the People Who Protect America's Critical Infrastructure
Then again, even for $800 million a year, the air marshals can be on only a fraction of all flights—maybe about 5 percent, depending on the number of air marshals, which is classified. No marshal was on board either shoe bomber Richard Reid’s plane or the one carrying underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
And what about the flights that air marshals were on? On the hundreds of thousands of flights carrying undercover air marshals since 9/11, not a single hijacker has been taken down. In fact, there have been more arrests of air marshals since 9/11 (for off-duty conduct such as drunk driving) than by air marshals for conduct in airports or on planes.
This is what makes any cost-benefit analysis so challenging. There have been no hijackings since 9/11—and the deterrent value of having even a small percentage of flights protected by marshals might account for that. Yet training thousands of men (and some women) for armed combat in the sky and then having them travel (mostly in first class, to be near the cockpit) on endless flights every day does seem to be overkill, especially when all cockpits have been fortified to prevent the kind of forced entry that precipitated the buildup of the marshal force.
That would seem to be a good argument for at least dropping the Federal Air Marshal Service down on the DHS priority list. Yet only in the past four years have any members of Congress even mildly urged cuts in its budget.
Part IV: Everything Is a Priority
At least in the case of the air marshals, there is a tactical argument for cutting the program: The fortifying of cockpit doors and the arming of thousands of pilots may have eliminated the threat that the marshal program was supposed to address. But no one in Washington seems willing to rank threats in terms of the relative risk they pose. Saying that something is less of a threat than something else is a political third rail. Everything is always a priority.
Kathryn Brinsfield, a former emergency-room doctor and administrator of EMS services in Boston, is the DHS assistant secretary running the agency’s bioterror-prevention programs, including the BioWatch sensors that have been waiting 15 years for next-generation technology. Those are the upgrades that one of her colleagues told Congress he hoped to have within the next “three to eight years.” When I asked her to discuss the obvious—that her bailiwick had lost the priority status it had in the months following the anthrax crisis—she gamely replied, “No, BioWatch is a major priority.”
Jeh Johnson is only a bit more forthcoming: “We have to be concerned about all ranges of attacks,” he says. “I never categorize anything as low priority, but we have to look at what’s high risk and what’s less high risk and spend our time accordingly.”
The problem with ducking a real discussion about priorities is that it allows for decisions to get made ad hoc and out of the limelight, typically based more on what’s “hot” or on what’s a political priority than on what the evidence might dictate.
“Not Your Father’s Terrorism”
What’s hot today is the threat of lone wolves.
Even before the Orlando massacre, every government official or television pundit was talking about how lone wolves—terrorists acting on their own, or in small groups—are the major threat to homeland security, rather than the kind of centrally managed, patiently planned shock-and-awe attacks al-Qaeda launched on 9/11. Although the Brussels and Paris massacres were, in fact, organized by sizable cells emanating from ISIL in Syria, multiple one-off attacks have become relatively common, from the Boston Marathon to Orlando to San Bernardino to Fort Hood to Garland to Chattanooga.
It adds up to what Johnson calls “an entirely different global environment.”
“This is not your father’s terrorism,” says John Miller, a former CBS News senior correspondent who is now the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism at the New York Police Department.
Miller has a newsman’s flair for describing the current situation pungently: “Al-Qaeda was an elite organization. They would turn people away,” he says. “ISIL does no screening; they do mass marketing … Their attitude is ‘We don’t care if you’re a loser. And we don’t care about some apocalyptic event. Just go do your thing.’ ”
“You do not have to be smart to kill people this way,” Miller continues. “The fact that they’re morons is academic. Any moron could make the pressure-cooker bomb those idiots used in Boston. The San Bernardino couple were idiots. If they had been directed by anyone, they’d have picked something a lot more crowded than the place where the guy worked. But ISIL latches on to people like that, telling them, ‘It’s okay to lash out at people you hate—in our name. It’s okay that you’re a loser. You can still have an impact. You can be a hero.’ It’s elixir for someone sitting in the glow of their laptop in their parents’ basement.”
Al-Qaeda’s biggest failing was ego, Miller says. “Bin Laden thought of himself as a historic figure and that if he just blew something up that wasn’t spectacular, he’d be just like the Palestinians. So they didn’t go after malls or anything ordinary. ISIL is just the opposite.”
So how do we guard against would-be killers sitting in their parents’ basements?
Miller’s team includes a crew of several dozen multilingual people sifting through websites and social media. “We have an easier time getting Arabic speakers than the FBI, because we don’t have to put them through the security clearances that the bureau does,” he says.
According to Miller, who served as the head of public affairs at the FBI from 2005 to 2009, 15 of the past 19 cases in which the FBI made arrests charging people with offenses such as planning to join ISIL stemmed from leads developed by his NYPD unit.
Carlos T. Fernandez, the FBI special agent in charge of the New York–based counterterrorism division, which runs the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, told me he is “not sure” of Miller’s count, and that “there were many [cases] where we were both working leads”—which, he added, “is really the point: The big change since 9/11 is how we work together.”
Strengthening the FBI
Fernandez’s New York operation is on three floors of an old office building overlooking the Meatpacking District in Lower Manhattan. The task force—whose major wins include the 2009 disruption of a bomb plot by a homegrown terrorist who had driven to Queens from Denver—now numbers some 400 federal, state, and local agents and investigators from the FBI, the NYPD, and all the metropolitan area’s other law-enforcement agencies. That’s a dramatic upgrade from when the unit was formed in 1980 with 10 FBI agents and 10 city detectives in response to threats from Croatian extremists and the Jewish Defense League. “Those were the good old days,” says Fernandez, whose work as an agent on the task force in the months after 9/11 had him spending much of his time overseas chasing leads.
Divided into 17 squads, the office has jurisdiction not only over New York, but also over cases emanating out of Canada, western Europe, and Africa.
One squad chases down any and all tips from the public and refers those that seem credible to more-specialized units. Others hunt terrorists on the internet. Separate squads track ISIL and al-Qaeda. Has Fernandez’s al-Qaeda team lost focus in the wake of ISIL’s rise to prominence? “That’s why we keep separate squads,” Fernandez says, “so that they don’t.”
A weapons-of-mass-destruction unit looks for intelligence about dirty bombs and bioweapons, keeping tabs on, as Fernandez puts it, “the potential players in bio or nuclear who, if we got a tip, we would look at first.”
“The threat information bubbles up from the units,” Carl Ghattas, the head of the FBI’s counterterrorism division at headquarters in Washington, told me. “It’s a triage process. You look at the patients in the emergency room and decide what needs your immediate attention or what needs some kind of longer-term initiative.” That raises the question of whether—as with DHS paying inadequate attention to bioterror vulnerabilities and, as we will see later, other federal agencies not doing enough to secure potential dirty-bomb material—the FBI’s triage process is allowing lower-profile, higher-impact threats to fester.
“You have to worry about all the marginal, stupid people that ISIL may motivate here,” James Comey, the FBI director, told me. “But there are