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15 years after 9/11, national security is stronger — but so are the threats

As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, we ponder the question: Is America safer now from terrorism than it was on that fateful day? Steven Brill spent the last year evaluating what has changed, including tightened airline security policies, but also how the country returned to "politics as usual." He speaks with Judy Woodruff about his findings -- and his recommendations.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now a look at the current state of security inside the U.S.

    As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, journalist Steven Brill spent the past year looking into how the country has changed since that terrible day, what’s been spent and what gaps still exist. His article, “Are We Any Safer?”, appears in the latest issue of “The Atlantic.”

    And I recently sat down with him and asked him what he learned.

  • Steven Brill, Contributor, The Atlantic:

    In a nutshell, what I concluded was, the way we have responded to the terrorist attacks, to 9/11, which, you know, changed everything, is sort of a microcosm of what we are as a country today.

    A lot of it was heroic, ingenious, people going beyond the cause of duty, doing really great things. And then a lot of it was actually quite the opposite, a lot of Beltway boondoggles, billions of dollars wasted because government contractors promised technology and solutions that they couldn’t produce.

    And we have struggled as a country with dealing with the notion of this new kind of risk. The idea, as President Bush explained, after 9/11, of never again, we’re never going to have a terrorist attack again, that’s just unrealistic in today’s world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You clearly give the government — and it spans several administrations, two administrations — credit for getting some things right, as you just said, but…

  • Steven Brill:

    A lot of things right, and a lot of unsung people, tens of thousands of people going to work every day at the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, places like TSA, the Border Patrol, really obsessed with the job of keeping us safe.

    And the only time we notice them is when something goes wrong. And that makes it a tough job. On the other hand, a lot of it went back to politics as usual. Every small town that you can think of made a request for government grants for homeland security, for everything ranging from routine fire trucks to fish tanks in a police station.

    So, there are a lot of abuses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was struck because, early on in the piece, you say, yes, we are safer than we were on 9/11, safer against the kind of threat we faced on 9/11.

  • Steven Brill:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But the threat has changed.

  • Steven Brill:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that’s what the government is — all of us are grappling with right now.

  • Steven Brill:

    We have done a lot to batten down the hatches, to make us safer, at the airports, at the ports, all over the place.

    But the threats have multiplied, the threats around the world. Our defenses are much stronger. The offense has multiplied and is much stronger. And it’s more difficult because, unlike the kind of coordinated, orchestrated attack that we faced on 9/11, where people were communicating, money was exchanging hands, that kind of stuff which we can now track, if some lone wolf in his basement is online…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Steven Brill:

     and he can go into a gun store in this country and buy an assault weapon, and he shoots up a shopping mall and yells out, you know, something in Arabic, that makes him a terrorist, and it scares us mightily.

    And that’s not something we can really prevent, other than doing something about assault weapons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, how — that’s what interested me so much in this piece was you look at one thing after another that the government did, some of it successfully.

    But, still, you have this undefined threat out there, some of which, as you say, it’s a lone wolf. It’s somebody who may be just mentally unstable who decides to adopt the terrorism…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Steven Brill:

    Exactly.

    And there are some non-lone wolf threats, some kind of more orchestrated threats, that were in the headlines right after 9/11 that basically fell out of the headlines, and therefore fell off our radar, and, frankly, that the government hasn’t paid enough attention to.

    The best example is the bioterror attack.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bioterrorism.

  • Steven Brill:

    Right after 9/11, with the anthrax attacks, that’s all we thought of.

    The technology that we tried to develop 15 years ago still hasn’t been developed that would warn us in the right way of a bio attack. We have not done enough to protect ourselves from dirty bombs. You can still go to hospitals and other industrial sites all over this country, and maybe have to break a tiny little padlock, if that, to get ahold of radiological material that you can mix with an easily available explosive and create a dirty bomb.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why hasn’t something like that been addressed?

  • Steven Brill:

    Because we tend to go after yesterday’s headline. Our attention shifts. And we don’t — when you say that everything’s a priority, if you have 10 or 12 high priorities, none of them becomes a priority, except if it’s in the news, if it’s in the headlines, if it’s part of a congressional hearing, maybe.

    So, we haven’t done the job we need to do of really assessing all the threats rationally and having a discussion with the American people that says, we can’t deal with everything, we have to have priorities, and some things are going to slip through the cracks, and, by the way, there are going to be terrorist attacks, not of the kind we had on 9/11.

    People are never going to be able to hijack a plane because of the TSA, because we have fortified cockpit doors in airlines. We have done a lot of things to deal with that, but we haven’t done much to deal with trains or ferry boats, for example.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because of our political system, as you say, it’s hard for our leaders to — political leaders to say candidly to the American people that there will always be a threat out there, that you cannot completely…

  • Steven Brill:

    President Obama has tried to do that. And every time he’s even in a subtle way tried to do that, where he has said — and, indeed, his Department of Homeland Security has implemented really important mitigation measures, really important, you know, recovery measures if there’s an attack.

    There was a drill in Boston just a few months before the bombing there. And when they did a report about that drill and how that had really helped to save lives after the marathon bombing, he was attacked by Senator Coburn for putting too much emphasis on mitigation, and not enough on prevention.

    Now, that, to me, is the equivalent of saying, why do you have ambulances on call? Why don’t you do something about crime and traffic safety?

    Well, you try to prevent crime and you try to prevent car accidents, but you have emergency rooms, you have ambulances. You acknowledge the fact that you’re not going to prevent all traffic accidents.

    We are not going to prevent all terrorism, especially if you define it as someone being able to get an assault weapon, which you can do in this country, and claim to be loyal to ISIS or some organization like that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What would you say to the next leader of this country, the next president about what most needs to be done to make this country…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Steven Brill:

    Well, the first thing that needs not to be done is to declare war on Muslims or Islam, because that’s exactly what those terrorists want.

    They want this to be the apocalyptic, end-of-all-worlds war between them and us. And President Bush didn’t take the bait, and President Obama has resisted taking that bait.

    Donald Trump campaigns on that. And it almost makes you think — in fact, it makes me think that ISIS would love to have someone like Trump be president, because they would get the fulfillment of their dream, which is to have the great confrontation with Western civilization.

    The second thing is to keep educating the country. While doing everything we can to prevent terrorism, keep educating the country to the reality that there are going to be some attacks, and that doesn’t mean it’s the apocalypse. It doesn’t mean we’re weak.

    Saying there are going to be attacks doesn’t mean you’re throwing in the towel, but it means we have to be realistic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it’s certainly a provocative piece. It’s one that reminds us of how complex the challenges are, and they don’t get any simpler as time goes by.

  • Steven Brill:

    Thanks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Steven Brill. Are we any safer than we were on 9/11?

    Thank you very much.

  • Steven Brill:

    You’re welcome.

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