Journal Article - Axess

After the 9/11 Disaster: Washington's Struggle to Improve Homeland Security

Published in Swedish  translation under the title “Bush Klarer Inte av att Forsvara USA.”

After September 11, a horrified and frightened American public wanted something more to be done to protect the United States from terrorist attack.  Responding to this overpowering public sentiment, and to the enormous sense of vulnerability revealed by the successful Al Qaeda strike against the United States, the Bush Administration scrambled to put in place a set of measures that would answer public concerns and improve the nation’s ability to cope with terrorism.  The agenda of steps and measures that followed were regarded as a program for “Homeland Security” – a program that was regarded, at least initially, as a major national priority.

On October 8, 2001, the President ordered the creation on the White House Staff of an “Office for Homeland Security,” headed by a Director for Homeland Security.  The first director was the President’s good friend, Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who was given full public backing by President Bush to take whatever steps necessary to protect the United States from the threat of terrorism.  The President also created a “Homeland Security Council,” the anti-terrorism counterpart to the National Security Council.  To go along with these new institutional arrangements, there was a new homeland security budget, amounting to several tens of billions of dollars.  By July of 2002, the White House had issued a formal document outlining “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” that describes in some detail the objectives and aspirations of this new national initiative.[i]

Meanwhile, Congress was considering homeland security legislation.  And indeed, by the end of 2002, the President had proposed and the Congress had approved a new cabinet-level department, the Department of Homeland Security, headed by a new Secretary for Homeland Security.  The first occupant of this post is Tom Ridge, who commands a staff of 170,000 (making it the second largest department in the federal government, second only to the Defense Department) and budget of nearly $40 billion.  The creation of this department represents the largest reorganization of the US federal government in more than half a century. In Washington, homeland security was now the main game in town.

The impulse to respond to 9/11 by enhancing efforts to protect the United States is perfectly natural and understandable.  Further, it is both sensible and responsible to explore what steps can be prudently and feasibly taken to reduce the exposure of American society to terrorism.  It is also appropriate to invest organizational and financial resources in such an endeavor. But what exactly is homeland security?  The concept does not have inherent precise meaning.  And how much can be accomplished by pursuing a program of homeland security?  American domestic politics since 9/11 demand a program of homeland security and the deep passions associated with that tragedy compel rapid action of some sort to provide reassurance to a troubled population.  But an honest and dispassionate assessment must evaluate both the opportunities for improving protection against terrorism and the limits on the ability of this – or any – administration to guarantee homeland security.

Efforts to Enhance Homeland Security

The essence of homeland security can be captured in three words: prevent, protect, and respond.  The ideal objective is to prevent terrorist attacks.  It is also desirable that potential targets of terrorism are not left completely vulnerable to attack, that protection is increased to the extent possible.  And if prevention fails, it will be important to be able to respond effectively to terrorist attacks.  It is now well understood that that so-called consequence management in the aftermath of an attack can minimize adverse effects in many conceivable scenarios.  Broadly speaking, in other words, the homeland security initiatives of the Bush Administration seek to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks and to limit the impact of any attacks that occur.  From these broad objectives flow a plethora of specific policy initiatives.

In the area of prevention, the imperative is to identify and thwart potential attackers and to deny them the means of attack.  How can this be accomplished?  A number of specific steps are being contemplated, attempted, or undertaken.

Improve anti-terrorism intelligence.  Preventing terrorist attacks depends almost entirely on intelligence.  Obviously, if the terrorists can keep themselves and their intentions hidden, it is impossible to stop them.  The nightmare for the United States or any other state threatened by terrorism is a series of unpleasant terrorist surprises (of which 9/11 was a particularly vivid example).  Accordingly, the challenge of improving counter-terrorism intelligence is one of the core concerns of homeland security.

This challenge, however, is daunting.  Enormous amounts of raw intelligence were already being collected.  Presumably this has only increased after 9/11.  But collection is only one step in the process.  Intelligence data must be analyzed, integrated with other intelligence and assessments, and – very importantly – communicated to those in a position to make effective use of it.  Because the United States has multiple (often competing but always independent) agencies engaged in various forms of intelligence activities, problems of coordination, integration, and communication abound.  Because some of these agencies – the FBI and the CIA, for example – are themselves large bureaucracies, such problems arise within as well as between intelligence agencies.  Beyond this, there has long been a strict and legally mandated separation between external intelligence operations (undertaken by the CIA and various Defense Department intelligence services) and internal investigative efforts (which are the domain of the FBI).  This – and the habit of poor cooperation between the CIA and the FBI – has made it difficult for external intelligence to feed into domestic investigations.  The FBI, the most important domestic investigative agency in the US federal government, is broadly oriented around solving crimes in the United States and hunting down criminals; it is neither organized nor optimized for the anti-terrorism mission.  And once potential threats have been identified, this information needs to get into the hands of the Immigration and Customs Service, the relevant police departments, and so on, if it is to be truly useful in leading to the apprehension of potential terrorists.

The Bush Administration has identified intelligence and warning as an integral cornerstone of its efforts to protect the United States from terrorism.  It has launched initiatives to improve analytic capabilities and to facilitate coordination of intelligence and intelligence agencies.  It has given explicit thought to the problem of converting intelligence into warning, and warning into effective action.  It has tried to map out a sensible and explicit allocation of responsibilities among agencies.[ii] In the latest development, President Bush ordered the creation of a Terrorist Threat Integration Center that would involve the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Attorney General.[iii]

More extensive surveillance of suspicious groups or individuals:  The individuals who carried out the 9/11 attack had lived, traveled, and trained in the United States.  Some of them had even been identified as suspicious figures.  This reality has made the American body politic more tolerant of empowering the government to engage in more aggressive and more intrusive surveillance of potentially threatening parties.  There is a desire to keep closer tabs on visitors to the United States, to monitor foreign students more closely, to infiltrate groups that may be capable of or intent on violence.  Modern information technology may be exploited to detect, collect, and assess relevant information about individuals with suspicious associations or activities.  The ideal is to identify and thwart terrorists before they can strike.

Improve monitoring of points of entry.  Vast numbers of people and vast quantities of material pour into the United States on a daily basis.  There is every prospect that, as in the past, terrorists could enter the United States in an open and completely legal way.  But since 9/11, the process for obtaining US visas has tightened (producing long delays that have been experienced by many foreigners).  There is greater scrutiny of foreign visitors at passport control.  There is much greater suspicion of incoming visitors who match certain worrying profiles.  The nineteen perpetrators of the 9/11 attack had all passed routinely into the United States.  Perhaps a more effective and more vigilant control of passage into the United States can stop terrorists at the border.  Similarly, there is every reason to fear that terrorists could ship implements of violence by normal commercial means.  There is a particular fear that weapons of mass destruction might enter the United States in this fashion.  Before 9/11, only a tiny percentage of goods and containers entering US territory were ever inspected, and there was little focus on finding weapons of mass destruction.  The volume of trade flows makes this an enormous, perhaps intractable challenge.  But there is now great interest in improving port security, in imposing more serious monitoring and verification of goods being shipped, of using modern technology (bar coding and other tracking technologies) to follow shipments from source to recipient, and of providing at least some technical and organizational means for detecting WMD or other weapons that might be used in terrorist attacks.   Analogous concerns arise, of course, with land ports of entry.  It is not physically or economically feasible to inspect carefully every large truck that enters the United States.  But there is more extensive checking of vehicles that pass through border crossings (again, with the cost of considerable delay) and exploration of technologies that might improve the ability to monitor this traffic.  The ideal is to prevent terrorists and their weapons from getting into the United States.

Make US borders less porous.   Illegal entry into the United States of people and goods is possibly even more worrying.  With its long, remote borders and lengthy coastlines, the United States faces a massive challenge in trying to prevent illicit border crossings.  Serious efforts have been made over many years, in connection with drug trafficking and illegal immigration, to strengthen border patrols, to make it more difficult and risky to enter the United States in this way.  While some progress seems to have been made along the US-Mexico border, no one seems to think that protection of borders is anywhere near good enough when evaluated in the context of the terrorism threat.

Enhance transportation security.  The character of the 9/11 attacks – essentially the use of commercial airliners as large cruise missiles and their fuel tanks as high explosives – made it clear that the various modes of mechanized transportation on which modern society ubiquitously depends could with some imagination be transformed into weapons in the hands of terrorists.  This was most clearly true of aircraft, of course, but it is not at all difficult to conceive of attacks that utilize boats or trains or large trucks.  Here are means that give terrorists the potential for further spectacular attacks.  Another basic preventive measure is therefore to deny these means to terrorists, and transportation security is accordingly another basic element in the Bush Administration homeland security strategy.  Anyone who has been inconvenienced by new security measures in an airport has felt the effect of this concern.

This collection of priorities and initiatives is derived from the desire to prevent terrorist attacks.  Alongside prevention is a parallel concern with protection – to reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorist attack.  A profound dilemma immediately arises: any building or facility anywhere in the United States could become a target of terrorist attack.  Before 9/11, the largest terrorist attack in American history was the destruction of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  There is no obvious reason why that building should have stood out as a target.  But it is perfectly clear that in a world of finite resources and potentially infinite threats and targets, it is impossible to protect everything.

Over the long run, if sensitivity to terrorism remains high, concern about reducing vulnerability to terrorism could have some remarkably wide and socially significant effects.  It could influence the way buildings are designed and constructed.  Buildings with positive pressure air handling systems and good air filtration will be significantly less vulnerable to chemical and biological attacks, for example.  The 9/11 attacks have dampened the enthusiasm of many people for living and working in skyscrapers (and the newspapers regularly report on the relocation of businesses from Manhattan to New Jersey, or North Carolina, or New Hampshire).  And concerns about vulnerability to terrorism could have major consequences for the way in which cities are developed in the future – for better or ill in terms of the vitality and livability of cities.[iv] (Simply put, densely populated urban areas – represented in the extreme by New York’s World Trade Center – are good terrorist targets.)

But whatever the long term impact of the threat of terrorism, the immediate issue is what to try to protect now, given that it is impossible to protect everything.  This has involved identifying potential terrorist targets of particular importance to the functioning of American society and the American economy and of potential attacks whose impact can be minimized by advance preparations.

Protecting Critical Infrastructure.  The strategy chosen by the Bush Administration focuses on the protection of critical infrastructure.  Though this is an approach meant to limit protective efforts to a manageable and especially important subset of potential targets, in fact the areas identified in the National Strategy for Homeland Defense encompass 13 large sectors of the economy, including agriculture, water, energy, transportation, banking and finance, the chemical industry, information and telecommunications, and so on.  No doubt these are all important areas, but defining critical infrastructure so broadly and so diversely – from protecting crops to protecting electronic data – means that the problem of protection remains vast and not obviously tractable – at least not on any short time horizon.

Some elements on the roster of critical infrastructure have attracted particular attention for one reason or another – threats to public water supplies and to electricity grids, for example – probably because any terrorist attack that denied such essentials to large numbers of people would cause huge dislocations.  Special fascination and concern appears to attach to scenarios involving what has been dubbed “cyberterrorism,” that is, electronic attacks on computer networks and communications.  Protecting the “electronic infrastructure” (or “securing cyberspace,”) is assigned particular priority in the Bush strategy, on the grounds that a successful cyberattack could “cascade across sectors.”  There are without question some serious concerns here, but the public debate does not yield clear conclusions about how vulnerable the internet is (being both decentralized and redundant) nor how large or lasting the effects of an attack would be.  Responsible parties in the US government have voiced serious worries.[v] There is some small blessing in the fact that cyberattack will be disruptive rather than destructive.

But this is only one of a diverse panoply of areas that have been designated for special attention under the rubric of protecting critical infrastructure.  Efforts to ensure cybersecurity will take place alongside efforts of the Department of Agriculture to protect American crops and food supply.  As this brief discussion suggests, even just trying to protect critical infrastructure involves large, diverse, and complicated activity.

Protecting against chemical or biological attack.   Just as some potential targets are singled out for special protective measures, so some potential terrorist attacks can be minimized by taking protective measures in advance.  Among the nightmare scenarios that deprive homeland security officials of sleep are attacks that involve the use of chemical or biological weapons (CBW).  Unlike nuclear weapons, CBW are more accessible, cheaper, and extremely difficult to detect or find.  Among the world’s terrorists, there seems to be growing interest in such weapons.  Fortunately, CBW are not inherently weapons of mass destruction (a decisive difference from nuclear weapons) and they can be neutralized with appropriate defensive steps.  A major emphasis of the Bush administration has been a program to innoculate key health and decisionmaking personnel, to stockpile vaccines, to heighten the awareness and capacity of the US public health system, and other measure to provide some protection against this particularly frightening form of attack.

Beyond prevention and protection lies consequence management.  If a terrorist attack occurs on American soil, the goal must be to respond effectively and to minimize adverse consequences.  This will likely be a complex operation involving multiple levels of government, multiple chains of authority and command, and a number of different functional specialists.  Major homeland security initiatives in this area include:

Preparing first responders.  The Bush strategy will invest considerable financial resources in the preparation of local emergency personnel – the so-called first responders – to cope with catastrophic terrorism.  Some of this involves training and education; but it can also involve the provision of specialized equipment as well.

Enhancing public health.  It is the American public heath system that is key to detecting and containing the effects of chemical or biological attacks.  The Bush Administration has placed great emphasis on making the public health community more aware of the terrorist threat, improving its ability to respond to CBW attacks, and making advance preparations for providing emergency care in the event of catastrophic terrorism.

This has been a quick overview of the agenda of initiatives and aspirations that fall under the heading of homeland security.  But having a strategy or a plan is only the first step in making the United States more secure against the threat of terrorism.

Limits and Constraints on the Enhancement of Homeland Security

This is a large and ambitious homeland security agenda that derives from the urge to minimize the vulnerability of the United States to terrorist attack.  Even if it were possible to achieve all the desired innovations and improvements, some vulnerability to terrorists would almost certainly remain.  But a more fundamental question is how much of this agenda is likely to be accomplished.  In truth, the drive for homeland security collides both with some deeply rooted and potentially insurmountable obstacles and with some difficult and potentially constraining trade-offs.  How feasible is the desirable?  And how effectively will the feasible steps be implemented?  A number of considerations suggest that major progress in homeland security will be difficult to achieve.

Globalization versus controlled borders.    In the modern age, technology and politics combine to permit enormous international flows of people, ideas, and products.  It is almost surely impossible to develop filters at the border that will reliably and comprehensively detect potential terrorists out of the flood of visitors and vacationers.  The US government reports that 500 million people cross into the United States on an annual basis.  Finding the one, or the ten, or even a few dozen, threatening individuals out of 500 million is equivalent to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.  The only exception might be cases in which known terrorists traveled undisguised – but that is not likely to be common.  And no system of screening or computerized databases will be helpful in the case of unknown terrorists so long as they have the wit to avoid drawing attention to themselves.  While there is no reason to give terrorists a free ride into the US, there should not be high expectations about eliminating the terrorist threat by catching them at the airport.  Globalization has made this too difficult.

State power versus civil liberties.  The United States has a strong legal tradition of individual civil liberties and a long history of resistance to the expansion of the power of the state.  Consequently, many measures thought desirable to strengthen the counter-terror capacities of the state – more intrusive surveillance, enhanced policing powers, relaxation of restrictions on search and seizure, looser regulation of wiretapping and other invasions of privacy – quickly bump up against this traditional American reticence to further empower the state (and, some would argue, up against constitutional guarantees of individual rights).  No doubt, 9/11 created an atmosphere in which moving some distance in these directions became more acceptable for the sake of more effective efforts against terrorists.  But once the raw emotion of 9/11 faded, these traditional concerns resurfaced, fuelled by a growing belief, as one account put it, that “the Bush Administration is encroaching upon civil rights with many of its new homeland security initiatives.”[vi] The Defense Department, for example, launched an anti-terrorist program called “Total Information Awareness” that aimed at collecting huge amounts of computerized information about US citizens and analyzing it in search of suspicious patterns.  This produced a political backlash that soon stopped the program dead in the water.  As New York Times columnist William Safire noted approvingly, even a Republican congress would not authorize the Bush Administration to go “snooping into the private lives of innocent Americans” or “to treat all citizens as suspects.”[vii] Perhaps future terrorist attacks with further erode the American commitment to civil liberties, but for now there is still a political need to confront the tradeoff between effectiveness against terrorism and the powerful desire of the typical American to enjoy the full protections offered by the American constitution.

Centralized responses versus distributed authority and capabilities.   The Bush Administration can reorganize the federal government and muster itself to tackle the homeland security challenge.  But a basic reality of the decentralized federal system found in the United States is that much of the authority and capacity cope with the threat of terrorism is found at the state and local levels.  This is particularly true in the realm of consequence management.  If a terrorist attack occurs, the “first responders” will necessarily be local fire and rescue personnel.  In the United States, typically every town and village has its own fire and rescue squads.  Depending on where an attack might occur, the first responders may or may not have the expertise and the wherewithal to cope effectively, especially in the event of very large scale attacks or when WMD might be involved.  The US Department of Homeland Security can certainly offer programs that help educate and equip first responders to be better able to react effectively to terrorist attack.  But in the moment of truth, it will be the first responders (whether trained and equipped or not) who will be on the front lines and the Department of Homeland Security will, at least initially, be irrelevant.

Secret Information, Widely Distributed? It seems to be deeply engrained in the culture of intelligence agencies that secret information must be closely held.  Sharing is often done reluctantly; wide distribution is often anathema.  There are good reasons for this: not wanting to compromise sources; not wanting to risk leaks; not wanting to reveal partial evidence or conclusions; not wanting to harm an ongoing investigation.  But in the counterterrorism game, information closely held does no good.  If the customs service or the local police or regional FBI offices are unaware that some individual in their jurisdiction is a suspected terrorist, the fact that a potential threat has been identified and is listed on some roster of suspicious characters does no good.  There is wide complaint in the US law enforcement community that federal officials do not share information.  This is obviously not an insuperable obstacle, but there may often be a tension between the requirements of counterterrorism and the way that intelligence agencies tend and prefer to operate.  This is a crucial concern because intelligence is so essential to effective prevention of terrorist attacks.

Public threat, private assets.  The US government has considerable regulatory powers, but nevertheless most of the physical and financial assets in the United States are in private hands.  Whatever the preferences of the Department of Homeland Security, it may be real estate development companies that determine the security arrangements at prominent buildings, private utilities that are directly responsible for the security of power plants, private for-profit hospitals that decide how many beds will be available for emergencies.  There is no reason to assume that private sector decisionmakers will be indifferent to the need for security, but they will also be seeking profit and in many cases answerable to shareholders.  In the example that became highly visible after 9/11, the airlines did provide for security at airports, but with an eye on the bottom line they wanted to do it cheaply.  Before 9/11, maximum security was too expensive from the airlines’ point of view.  The US has responded to this specific dilemma by federalising security at US airports.  In other instances it can provide subsidies or tax breaks to induce desired behaviors in private sector actors.  But much of the critical infrastructure that the Bush administration rightly worries about protecting will depend heavily on decisions in the private sector for its safety and security.

Bureaucratic realities versus counterterrorist needs.  If ever there were a problem that does not respect traditional bureaucratic boundaries, it is homeland security.  It cuts across so many domains of public and private life, requires serious efforts in so many different substantive arenas, requires so much cooperation and mutual comprehension from so many dissimilar organizations, that it simply cannot conform to any tidy and traditional bureaucratic structure.  The New Department of Homeland Security reflects this reality.  It pulls within its organization chart a remarkable hodge-podge of organizations, drawn from all over the US government.  It will include the Coast Guard and the Secret Service, the US Customs Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Nuclear Incident Response Team and the Federal Computer Incident Response Team – and many others.  The organizations have different histories and traditions, different missions, different languages and organizational cultures, and in most instances very little habit or experience of cooperating with one another.  Left our are the absolutely crucial intelligence and investigative agencies – the CIA and the FBI – probably because they were powerful enough to protect their turf.  This means, though, that information flow becomes an inter-agency matter.  To function moderately, much less to perform at the desirable and necessary high levels, this operation will have to overcome to an exceptional degree the bureaucratic pathologies that normally encumber any large, complex organization.

Conclusion: Still Vulnerable

The attacks of September 11 concentrated the American mind very much on the problem of homeland security.  The Bush Administration has responded with a strategy that is impressive, comprehensive, sophisticated, but it has barely made a beginning in addressing the terrorism threat.  Every major pronouncement so far – whether from independent commissions or from the CIA – has judged that the United States is more or less as vulnerable today as it was on September 10, 2001.  In part this reflects the scale of the homeland security challenge.  In part this reflects the difficulty in implementing large reforms.  In part it reflects the power of the obstacles to effective homeland defense.   Progress has been made, but no one will be surprised when the next large terrorist attack takes place on American soil.  It is widely understood that this is still possible, perhaps even likely.  It may be that the Bush Administration’s understanding of the profound difficulties of fashioning effective homeland security helps to explain the President’s preoccupation with offensive action in Afghanistan and Iraq.  That old saying that the best defense is a good offense may be particularly apt to the new struggle against terrorism.

[i][i] The full text of the National Strategy for Homeland Security is available on the web site of the Office of Homeland Security.

[ii] See, for example, National Strategy for Homeland Security, p. 16.

[iii] Shane Harris, “Bush Orders FBI, CIA to Build New Terror Intelligence Office,”, January 29, 2003.

[iv] See, for example, David Dixon, “Is Density Dangerous? The Architects’ Obligations After the Towers Fell,” Perspectives on Preparedness, No. 12, October 2002.

[v] See, for example, Judith Miller, “Departing Security Official Issues Warning,” New York Times, February 2, 2003.

[vi] Shane Harris, “Senator seeks ban on Defense, Homeland Security Data Mining,”, January 16, 2003.

[vii] William Safire, “Privacy Invasion Curtailed,” New York Times, Februray 13, 2002.

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For Academic Citation: Miller, Steven E.. After the 9/11 Disaster: Washington's Struggle to Improve Homeland Security.” Axess, no. 2. (February 28, 2003):