As the United States grappled with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, many Americans were haunted by one question—could they have been prevented?
The 9/11 Commission Report pinpointed “specific points of vulnerability in the plot and opportunities to disrupt it,” which were missed by the private sector, government employees, and top officials in the White House.
There were reporting mistakes, like the fact that money sent from overseas to the 9/11 hijackers should have been investigated by financial regulators, but companies including Western Union failed to report the transactions. There were security mistakes, highlighted in a chilling video of several of the hijackers of flight 77 that hit the Pentagon being screened at Washington’s Dulles airport, setting off alarms. Two of these men were on an anti-terrorism watch list, and one had no photo ID—but all were allowed through security.
Then, there were the heart-droppingly awful intelligence and leadership mistakes: The CIA had warned the US’s top national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, months before the attack that intelligence showed al-Qaeda was planning “multiple” imminent and “spectacular” attacks on US soil. George W. Bush’s White House team had several other warnings, but failed to take its own intelligence agencies seriously, or raise alarms about al-Qaeda.
The Department of Homeland Security, the behemoth that handles everything from visas to airport security to coordinating federal responses to terrorism, was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to prevent them from ever happening again. The mega-bureaucracy now has 229,000 employees and a $50 billion annual budget, and is supposed to streamline the process for getting goods and people into the US, and keep dangerous people out.
But under Donald Trump, the agency’s mission has been politicized and misdirected, former top officials and counterterrorism experts have been warning for months. The threat of terrorism on US soil is as high now as it was prior to 9/11, the DHS’s acting secretary Elaine Duke warned last September.
Duke said she would step down in January. Since then, the DHS has been consumed with some of Trump’s most controversial anti-immigrant policies, including separating families seeking asylum at the US southern border, then scrambling to reunite some on a judge’s order; enforcing, and managing the chaos caused by, Trump’s travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries; and deportations, including those of long-time peaceful residents. Now the DHS’s 2019 funding bill is stuck in Congress, over worries that Trump will hold the entire US government hostage to pay for a controversial wall at the US southern border.
At the same time, Trump continues to go after his own intelligence agencies and the Department of Justice, as well as the US’s closest allies, who stepped up after the attacks. Canada hosted thousands of Americans stranded there for days; now the US is fighting Canada in a trade war. The US’s NATO allies leapt to its defense, and now the Trump government is alienating them all.
Seventeen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Trump administration seems hell-bent on forgetting all the painful lessons the US learned.