Web Chat: The Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

On September 7, Dan Byman took your questions in a live web chat ahead of the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur on American soil. Erika Lovley, assistant editor at POLITICO, moderated the discussion. The transcript of this chat follows.

12:29 Erika Lovley: Let’s get started.

12:29 [Comment From dave: ] How has the war on terror changed in the past 10 years?

12:31 Daniel Byman: This is a big question, and the answer depends on which aspect of the “war” you look at: foreign policy, homeland defense, intelligence, and so on. I’d say some of the biggest are in foreign policy and intelligence, so I’ll start there. In foreign policy, key allies — and key problems — have changed. Saudi Arabia was a major concern in 2002, say, and while it is still of concern from a fundraising point of view, the Saudis are far more “on board” than they were a decade ago. Pakistan, on the other hand, has gone from bad to worse. In intelligence, the community now devotes incredible resources to counterterrorism. As a result it is able to find and track terrorists around the globe, using new technologies and processing huge amounts of data.

12:31 [Comment From marcus: ] Are Americans safer now than we were in 2001?

12:32 Daniel Byman: For the most part yes, but it’s a tricky question. Al-Qa’ida, the core organization founded by Bin Laden, is relatively weak now. One wants to be careful saying it is less capable, but in my judgment it is less able to do a difficult “spectacular” attack like 9/11.

However, in the last two years we’ve seen an uptick in radicalism in the United States. The absolute numbers are still VERY small, but this is a big shift from 10 years ago.

12:33 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt: ] With the death of bin Laden, where is the epicenter of al Qaeda?

12:34 Daniel Byman: Many U.S. officials would say the center of the jihadist movement is now with affiliate organizations, particularly in Yemen, where the Al Qaeda branch has almost successfully done two major attacks on U.S. civil aviation. However, it is too soon to count out the Al Qaeda core, though it is under tremendous pressure. And as U.S. forces department from Iraq, the Al Qaeda organization there may get stronger.

12:34 [Comment From Katie: ] Do you think the emotional component of 9/11 has caused our government to over spend on some areas of homeland security?

12:36 Daniel Byman: Yes.

Part of our spending is based on scenarios that reflect our vulnerability rather than terrorist goals. So port security has gotten tremendous attention, even though terrorists don’t really focus on attacking ports. More broadly, there is a danger in spending in parts of the country that face less of a threat. New York and Washington are still the biggest targets, and while other areas are not immune spending should reflect this.

But a lot depend in the end on your sense of threat. The terrorism danger is real, but there are other dangers and problems too, and if we spend on terrorism we are often neglecting other concerns. One key to success is domestic resilience: being able to be attacked, and move on, without changing our lives even as we go after terrorists aggressively. Resilience is often more effective than expensive defenses.

12:37 [Comment From Emily: ] Given the pending budget cuts at the Pentagon, what’s going to happen to anti-terrorist strategies?

12:39 Daniel Byman: Budget cuts loom over all the government, and it’s not clear (to me at least) where the Pentagon will try to achieve savings. A lot of the procurement of advanced systems is unrelated to counterterrorism (which doesn’t make it less important), and thus may not have a huge impact on counterterrorism. And if the United States has at most a minimal presence in Iraq and draws down in Afghanistan, the force structure can be reduced. Streamlining some of the Pentagon medical costs for non-wounded personnel would also save considerable money. So much depends.

12:39 [Comment From Lina Liu (Xinhua): ] What is 9/11’s impact on the U.S. deficit debt challenge? Some experts say that it has changed Americans fiscal discipline, do you agree with that?

12:41 Daniel Byman: Spending on counterterrorism, and in particular spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has contributed to America’s deficits. This is not even most of the source of the deficit, but it’s not inconsiderable either.

I think the Bush administration in particular, but also the Obama administration, had an opportunity to put these wars on a sounder fiscal basis. if in 2001 Bush had asked Congress for a tax raise to pay for counterterrorism and the war in Afghanistan, I believe even the most conservative voices would have supported it. In 2003, perhaps less so regarding Iraq, but even there I think there is an understanding the war has a price. But by not doing that, and with Obama not trying to change this, there is a sense that you can wage war and not pay for it.

12:41 [Comment From Liana: ] Do you think anti-terrorist measures have disrupted too many areas of American life? Realistically, what is the actual threat level, and should we be interfering with every day life because of “a potential attack”?

12:44 Daniel Byman: Most counterterrorism measures have relatively little impact on U.S. citizens (immigrants and visitors are another matter). I think the threat to the U.S. homeland is real but not at the same level as before 9/11, but just as importantly I think there are many threats that cannot easily be guarded against (say a bomb on a bus or in a shopping area) and thus must be taken as an tragic part of modern life (see my point above on resilience).

The one exception to this is civil aviation. Anyone who has gone to an airport knows how unpleasant flying now is (though you can’t blame a lack of legroom on terrorists). However, this is the one area that deserves tremendous attention. Terrorists have repeatedly targeted airplanes and several times have gotten extremely close (think shoe-bomber or underwear-bomber). So there the security measures are appropriate.

12:44 [Comment From Karen: ] Have the changes in the intelligence community been enough to prevent another intelligence failure like 9/11?

12:46 Daniel Byman: I have a different take on 9/11 and intelligence. Any successful enemy attack is, in some sense, a failure. And the intelligence community made mistakes that made attacks more likely to be successful before 9/11.

However, the biggest failure was on the policy front. The intelligence community repeatedly and consistently provided strategic warning that Al Qaeda was going to attack. George Tenet testified on this publicly before 9/11, and the record is clear of his trying to warn policymakers in both administrations.

That is an intelligence success, even though little changed in the policy world.

Within the community, things are much better. The FBI, CIA, and military are now far more likely to share information, cooperate on operations, and so on. They are still big and bulky bureaucracies and make many mistakes. However, if a mistake occurs it is not for lack of trying.

12:47 [Comment From Felicia Greene: ] How does the Arab spring play in the war on terror? Do we have reason to hope for improved relations in that part of the world, or is the end result going to be continued anti-American, anti-western sentiment?

12:50 Daniel Byman: So far, the Arab spring has not seen a dramatic change in opinions of the US. In Egypt, for example, post-Mubarak polls still show that Egyptians have a low opinion of the US.

There is good news and bad news on the Arab spring. The bad news is that many jails have opened, and imprisoned jihadists are out. Moreover, security services are weak or weaker, and this gives terrorists far more freedom of movement. Even in countries like Jordan, where the regime is intact, the security services are focusing on peaceful dissidents more than terrorists, as the former is the biggest threat to the regime.

The good news, however, is (potentially) bigger. The Arab spring represents an alternative to Bin Laden’s claim that only violence can bring about better government in the Arab world. Through courage and peaceful protest, and through resistance in Libya, three despots have fallen. Terrorism and jihad had nothing to do with this. The risk is that the new governments fail, and this gives Bin Laden’s (now Zawahiri’s) arguments more credibility.

12:50 [Comment From Rico B.: ] You say we’re safer, but in the end, is there really much that can be done against a determined terrorist who is willing to lose his/her life in an attack on unarmed civilians?

12:52 Daniel Byman: if you think of the single suicide bomber in isolation, there is not much to be done. But that suicide bomber is recruited, funded, and trained — and all three of those can be dramatically changed through counterterrorism. If terrorists don’t have a haven, they cannot do large-scale training. If they have no money, they can’t attract as many recruits (who would pay to care for their families, and more prosaically their plane tickets and passports), and so on. If you can shape the overall ideological climate, the suicide bomber might go from being seen as a hero to being seen as a crazy murderer, a far less attractive image for a young man eager to impress those around him.

So if you think about the overall organization behind the suicide bomber, there is a lot to be done.

12:52 [Comment From Joslyn D.: ] People remember the attacks, but is there still confusion about what happened? I’ve heard kids whose parents are in the military say that it was Iraq that attacked us. Do average Americans have a good handle on the causes of the attack and our policy decisions after?

12:54 Daniel Byman: As someone who has worked on terrorism issues for some time and who was part of the 9/11 Commission effort, I find your question painful and depressing. Yes, you are right — there is still a tremendous number of Americans who are misinformed on what happened. Part of this can be blamed on Bush administration officials deliberately muddying the waters regarding Iraq’s role, but there are 1,001 conspiracy theories out there (say that Bush was behind it so he could invade Iraq and help Haliburton or something equally stupid) that many people believe.

My only comfort is that there is a very funny Onion video on this subject.

12:55 [Comment From Paul: ] What have we learned in the 10 years since 9/11?

12:57 Daniel Byman: I think we’ve learned a paradoxical lesson: our government is incredibly powerful, but it is also limited in how much it can change the world.

The post-9/11 U.S. effort against Al Qaeda was amazing, with cells disrupted around the world and the Taliban quickly routed, with Al Qaeda being deprived of a haven. Yet in Afghanistan and Iraq U.S. efforts to change the countries and their politics have met with at best limited success.

And who has a good idea about what to do on Pakistan or Al Qaeda’s growing influence in Somalia?

So we’ve learned a lot at the tactical level. There are new technologies, tactics, and procedures in the military and intelligence world that make the U.S. far more effective. But there are harsh realities to today’s world that we can perhaps shape on the margins but often have to live with.

12:58 [Comment From Sally: ] Ten years after 9/11, do you see the wounds of that day for the American people starting to heal?

1:00 Daniel Byman: I will not pretend to speak about those who lost loved ones on 9/11. I’m sure that most have “moved on” in some way, but I’m equally sure that there is a hole in their hearts that time has not healed.

For the rest of us, however, I think 9/11 is still there but has faded considerably. Part of this is appropriate: it was a cataclysmic day, but there was no massive terrorist attack so far in the years that followed, despite the predictions of many experts. And in practical ways it has faded (real estate in Manhattan remains expensive, etc.). But 9/11 is still there as an image, reminding Americans that it’s a tough world out that and that we cannot simply ignore unpleasant realities.

1:00 Erika Lovley: Great, that should do it for today!

1:00 Erika Lovley: Thanks everyone.