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Are we safer now? Homeland security leaders reflect, 20 years after 9/11

Five former and current DHS leaders tackle the big question

twin towers 9/11

Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001 in New York City.

AP Photo/Richard Drew

By Ellen Gilmer
Bloomberg News

NEW YORK — The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks left the U.S. with national trauma, two decades of war, and the biggest shuffle of federal bureaucracy in American history.

The Department of Homeland Security took shape in the wake of the devastation, pulling together safety and security functions from across the government. The goal: to ensure a 9/11-style attack could never happen again. DHS has since grown to the third-largest Cabinet department, juggling cybersecurity, climate change and other emerging threats while continuing to fight terrorists from within the U.S. and abroad.

“We have more terrorists today than we did on 9/11,” Elizabeth Neumann, DHS’ assistant secretary for counterterrorism during the Trump administration, told a Senate panel in August. “That’s very sobering, as a counterterrorism person.”

Twenty years after the attacks that spurred DHS’ creation, is the homeland any safer from terrorism? Is the agency prepared to prevent another 9/11 — whatever form it takes?

Bloomberg Government asked five current and former DHS leaders to share their views as the anniversary approaches. Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Secretary Michael Chertoff (Bush 2005-09)

You’re almost hesitant to say we are safer, or less; it’s such a dynamic situation in the world. We built a structure that would make it much more difficult for international terrorists to carry out a 9/11 on the scale of what we had 20 years ago. We haven’t had an attack of that scale since 9/11, and we’ve also been very good about keeping dangerous people out of the country.

That being said, though, we’ve had new threats that have emerged. The scale of those is less than a 9/11, thank God, but we’ve seen a number of cases where extremists on the right have committed acts of violence against people at a synagogue or a church. We’ve also had situations where jihadi sympathizers have been inspired to carry out attacks.

[RELATED: 9/11: Reflections at 20 years]

A concern that we’re now going to be starting to worry about with Afghanistan is when the jihadis actually have control over territory, that gives them an opportunity to train people and experiment with laboratories and weapons. We’re going to have to be more vigilant now about the possibility of experimenting with weapons of mass destruction or biological or chemical weapons. As we saw in Afghanistan 20 years ago when we went in, we found labs and training camps that the jihadis were using to try and come up with devastating weapons.

DHS is going to be quite busy, as they have been throughout the entire existence of the department. And to add to that, the domestic terrorism issue has by no means gone away. In fact, it’s intensifying, so there’s going to have to be both the ability to look overseas, but also the ability to look at home.

Secretary Janet Napolitano (Obama 2009-13)

Are there some things that we’re safer on now than we were on 9/11? Absolutely. Are there new risks that have evolved or multiplied or grown since 9/11? Absolutely. To put it shortly, on some things, we’re definitely safer. On aviation security, it’s really hard to imagine how passengers could actually take over a commercial airliner and weaponize it the way they did on 9/11.

But risks are not static. It’s a constantly changing environment, so some risks have grown, like cybersecurity. The risks from domestic groups have grown, the number of the groups and their activities have grown. Risks that are related to information, misinformation, disinformation on social media and how that undercuts trust in our institutions, that’s grown. It’s a different risk environment.

DHS needs to continue to be agile and to adapt. They need to continue to invest in their analytic capability and in new technologies that can help us understand the risks that confront us. In the midst of still trying to harness this huge behemoth of a department, they need to continue to work on creating a sense of unity of effort and clear goal-setting. They need to avoid the temptation to be just the Department of the Southwest Border. Their statutory mission is so much broader.

Secretary Jeh Johnson (Obama 2013-17)

DHS was created in 2002 on the assumption that the terrorist threat to our homeland was extraterritorial, that it was beyond our borders, and therefore if we consolidate into one cabinet-level department the regulation of all the different ways someone can enter our country, we’ve effectively dealt with terrorism.

Now the principal threat is the threat of violent white nationalism here in the United States. That is not a threat that the current DHS is equipped to deal with. You don’t have a lot of DHS cops running around in the interior looking for domestic-based terrorists, and I’m not sure that there should be. That task has fallen principally to the FBI.

In my time in office as this threat was evolving, I spent a lot of time on countering violent extremism here at home — meeting with community organizations, local law enforcement in major metropolitan areas around the country to help build relationships with organizations dedicated to countering violent extremism. The way DHS influences that space is through grant-making authority, countering violent extremism activity, and intelligence-sharing with local law enforcement.

If I were king, and I’m not, I would decree a consolidation of all of the federal law enforcement agencies into one department of public safety, modeled after the way they do things in other countries. I would consolidate all of that into one place, deconflict their missions, give them one intelligence collection directorate to support all the law enforcement. But many people would regard that as too big, and it will never happen. But that would be the most effective way to deal with any type of domestic-based terrorist threat to our homeland.

DHS was a political compromise like everything in Washington. In some respects, it didn’t go far enough. In other respects, it went too far.

Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (Trump 2019-21)

There’s been a lot of progress made at the department regarding homeland security over the last 20 years. We are leaps and bounds from where we were on the morning of 9/11. We have a lot more infrastructure, a lot more vetting, a lot more intel-collecting taking place. There’s a lot of robust systems established over the last 20 years through the department’s efforts.

That being said, just in the last seven months, there are a couple things that give me pause. The border is a good example of that. We haven’t seen these numbers since 2001. The department’s never had to deal with the influx of people we see on the southern border month in and month out. The national security element of what’s going on there is being overlooked. And what’s going on in Afghanistan is very concerning. I’m concerned we’re not as safe and secure as we were four or five years ago, given the decision-making and some of the real-world things going on today.

They are overly focused on domestic terrorism. If you were to ask most politicals at the department today, they would say it’s the No. 1 threat to the homeland. It’s absurd to say that’s the most pressing threat to the homeland. It is a concern, it is a threat, but not the most pressing threat. They need to start focusing on their core competencies: continuing to improve the vetting, the screening, the counterterrorism tools at the department. You’ve got to keep refining those.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (Biden 2021-present)

The terrorism-related threat has evolved over the years. When I began in 2009 in the department, it was the foreign-fighter threat. The individual would seek to enter the United States and do us harm. It evolved, when I became the deputy secretary, to the homegrown violent extremists; the individual radicalized by, for example, ISIS ideology via the internet.

It is now what would be termed the domestic violent extremists: false narratives, ideologies of hate, an individual here drawn to violence by reason of false narratives, those ideologies of hate, and other extreme views. The question I ask is, can we address the threat as it exists now? Yes.

We have issued bulletins to local first responders in communities. We’ve issued alerts, we’re disseminating information more ably than in the prior years. We’ve created a domestic terrorism unit. We have a domestic terrorism strategy. We’ve dedicated for the first time grant funds specifically to address this with a minimum of $77 million. Yes, we are meeting the challenge, but what will be the next evolution? Are we poised now, do we have the infrastructure to address what might come tomorrow? When I asked that question, one of the answers was our infrastructure — the IT system we have to push information out — needs improvement. So we invested in it.

Many studies have been conducted about the department over the years, and whether it needs to be reformed. We welcome those recommendations, whether they are by think tanks, the legislature, or others. I draw ideas from those discussions. I read the different variations of the reform bills. There are things with which I agree, things with which I don’t. It’s a process. I appreciate, frankly, the focus on the well-being of the department.

NEXT: Address the vulnerabilities in your backyard: Terrorism preparedness for rural agencies

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