Foreign Policy

America May Have Overreacted to September 11 … but Americans Didn’t

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Did America overreact to September 11? In a recent column in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria answered that with an emphatic and mournful “yes.” In Mr. Zakaria’s telling, we’ve squandered billions of dollars heedlessly feeding our national security bureaucracies, which hardly provide us, as the French nicely put it, a very good rapport qualité-prix. Worse, we’ve created an intrusive, abrasive, civil-rights-mauling security and intelligence apparatus that “now touches every aspect of American-life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism.” Mr. Zakaria uses the book Zeitoun, about a Syrian-American who finds herself bounced around by National Guardsmen and other counterterrorist dimwits in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as an exemplar of American decency forfeited since September 11, via our never-ending war against Al Qaeda, an outfit that, as it turns out, really isn’t much of a threat at all.

I’m deeply sympathetic to the first half of Mr. Zakaria’s charge; the more serious bureaucratic and moral indictment, however, runs exactly counter to his. Concerning the wasted billions, the Department of Homeland Security, the rest of the agencies, departments, and bureaus that make up America’s national-security and intelligence complex, Mr. Zakaria is far too kind. The official American love affair with “bigger is better” was writ large by Congress and the White House after the nation watched jet-fueled bombs incinerate New York City’s most iconic skyscrapers and one side of the Pentagon.

Predictably, but unwisely, Democrats and Republicans demanded ludicrous amounts of funding for security and intelligence institutions whose functions they barely understood, and to counter a threat that had no resemblance to any the United States had confronted before. Armoring aircraft doors, tightening up airport security, and turning off the visa mill to Muslim men of an impressionable age was sufficient to discombobulate Al Qaeda’s penchant for aerial terrorism. The absolutely critical war in Afghanistan aside, many other things were required to play better defense and offense against Al Qaeda, other jihadist organizations, and Islamic radicalism in general. But none of these things required that much money or personnel.

Whatever the subject, “smaller-is-better” arguments seldom win the day in Washington. Americans may have once prided themselves on the ingenuity and freedom of their capitalist system, but bureaucratically Americans take second seat to no European. When confronting threats real or imagined (and Al Qaeda/bin Ladenism counts as one of the most lethal enemies we’ve ever encountered), Americans tend to go big, very big. (Here, there’s little real distance between Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich.) And when senior agency heads“professionals” allswear that they must have more case officers, analysts, field agents, police, technicians, translators, and any and all existing and even not-yet-existing counterterrorist technology and machinery … at least if we mean to postpone Armageddon … well, politicians just melt.

In my experience, senators and congressmen on select intelligence committees or staffers on the National Security Council rarely delve into the nitty-gritty of exactly how additional staff members accomplish anything of additional value. It is always good to recall that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s most articulate (if not always sober and fair) Cold War critics, who knew the organization was stuffed with ill-informed analysts and prevaricating senior operatives, never once, to my knowledge, reduced Langley’s appropriations.

Now for the good news: I just peeked outside and we are emphatically not becoming a police state. We were not doing so under President George W. Bush and we are not doing so under President Barack Obama, who has left untouched most of his predecessor’s intelligence and counterterrorist programs and tactics (with the notable exception that Mr. Obama has been killing a lot more holy warriors with drones and attempting to capture and interrogate far fewer of them).

No doubt: Innocent Muslims find themselves caught in the net, but the truly grievous miscarriages of justice appear to have been relatively rare, especially given the scope of the threat that Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations present. My former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Gary Schmitt, and I spent two years2006 to 2008visiting European internal-security and domestic-intelligence services. AEI has recently published a collection of essaysSafety, Liberty, and Islamist Terrorismby Gary and European contributors that compares and contrasts American and European approaches to counterterrorism.

The conclusion: Contrary to received wisdom, Americans have been, if anything, more tentative and cautious in their approach to the jihadist threat than many of our European allies, who routinely use surveillance, administrative detention, and prosecutorial methods much more intrusive than those employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, our primary counterterrorist organization on the home front.

I’m quite certain that Mr. Zakaria might not approve of some of the things that France and Great Britain do (I don’t), but I doubt he’d depict either country as tilting over the edge of some dark abyss. In fact, even as France and Great Britain were gearing up their counterterrorist machinery after September 11 (the French didn’t have to do too much, as their own internal security organization, the DST, became well aware of what jihadists could do when terrorists tried to derail a high-speed train in 1995), their societies were becoming more open and liberal. Today, civil liberties are no more endangered among our two closest European allies, which also boast the two most effective Western counterterrorist systems, than they were before September 11.

So, too, in the United States. When I first flew into Washington after September 11 (I was then living abroad), a veiled Muslim woman searched my luggage. (A good call, given my mien and all the scribbled Middle Eastern and Central Asian visas in my passport.) Indeed, Mr. Zakaria’s rise to prominence after September 11 itself offers testimony to American openness, fairness, and good sense.

What becomes so striking about the United States after September 11and the same may be said, perhaps a little less enthusiastically, of the Western Europeansis how well-behaved Americans have been towards Muslim Americans. Cock-ups aside (and anyone who has worked in the internal-security or intelligence business knows that disheartening errors come with the turf in this very bureaucratic line of work), Americans have shown themselves to be models of tolerance, all the more given the insidiousness of the threat.

I suspect that even if Al Qaeda were to enthrall better-educated, more scientifically-skilled talent and wreak an even greater magnitude of havoc, our creedal emphasis on liberty, equality, and tolerance would keep Americans from enshrining collective guilt in official policy, or even in the popular imagination. Now, if only we could rid ourselves of the conviction that bigger is better and create a leaner counterterrorist bureaucracy. Then again, that would not be the American way.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard

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