Both President Bush and President Obama have been largely successful in protecting our homeland from extremist Islamic terrorism for the last ten years. After September 11, the Bush administration was entirely free from any such attacks; and the Obama administration has suffered only the Fort Hood massacre and a few near misses.
But neither president has ever been able to boast of his record for fear that the next day would see such an attack.
The record so far is worth some boasting, though. Since 9/11, America has been far safer. It’s come at a price—in the form of some $80 billion a year spent on intelligence (the funding was half that ten years ago) and the personal disruption caused by a more elaborate, humiliating process for boarding planes and entering public buildings. Still, what we have now are far more effective intelligence agencies.Leadership has come from the two presidents, but also from the people they have charged with the responsibility for unmasking terrorist plots here in the United States, including particularly the CIA reforms implemented by Leon Panetta. One hopes that he will do as well in the Department of Defense as budgets shrink.
Another lead role over the past decade has been played by the director of national intelligence (DNI), who serves as chief adviser to the president and as head of the U.S. intelligence community. The position came as the result of a 9/11 Commission recommendation, and—though the role has less authority than envisioned, since Congress didn’t give it the budget control of other intelligence agencies—interagency efforts and information sharing are far better than a decade ago. The DNI is now beginning to serve as a nexus for intelligence collection and distribution among the 17 separate federal intelligence agencies; and has already helped to bridge the CIA-FBI divide, which stymied our anti-terrorism efforts leading up to 9/11.
Yet there is one main field in which the current administration's leadership has been less assured, and that is in recognizing that a safer America is not the same as a world with less threat. The targets of choice are still U.S. citizens. Violent Islamic extremism has been displaced to Muslim nations (and, to a limited extent, Europe) only because America’s defenses have grown more effective, not because we have successfully reduced the danger.
For far too long our current presidential leadership favored the status quo and was unwilling to risk a change agenda that would address the root causes. We still see major challenges as failed and failing states in the Arab world remain potential refuges for extremists—Somalia and Pakistan are two examples, yet Afghanistan may still prove the gravest threat of all. As he pushes forward our American troop withdrawal, President Obama should not forget the danger if a pre-9/11 Taliban state regains power.
While the threat hasn’t lessened much over the past decade, this year does bring some good news. The uprising in nations from Egypt to Libya to Tunisia have shown early success for Muslims demanding open and civil societies. Yes, it opens the door for extremists to gain more power, but the chance at democratic governments is so worth the risk that our national leaders should be even more daring in giving decisive support to such efforts, for example in Syria.
Our president may lack any political reward for reducing the fundamental causes of terrorism, but this is where the real leadership successes lie since September 11. Leaders who place domestic protection high on their list of priorities, even though they can’t easily flaunt their successes, are the ones who have truly learned the hard lessons to come out of our national tragedy.
Slade Gorton, former U.S. senator and Washington State attorney general, served on the 9/11 Commission.
Tim Roemer: Ten years after September 11, America’s unfinished business
Fred F. Fielding: A commission designed to fail — that didn’t
What was the 9/11 Commission Report?