How 9/11 has changed the government’s response to terrorism

9/11: We Remember

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.- As we just marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the government’s focus is on terrorism response and where new threats might be.

Twenty years ago this month, the federal government changed forever in the way that it protects us from terror attacks. So, what do experts say have been the biggest changes to our government since 9/11? And what do they say remains the most pressing concern about securing the homeland? 

From transportation to the US Treasury, 9/11’s impact on the federal government is substantial.  

Most noticeable is the Department of Homeland Security’s creation from 22 separate agencies in 2002.   

But 9/11 also changed the culture around how government protects the American people.  

Former INS agent John Torres, who was assigned to work at FBI headquarters, explains that, before 9/11, officials saw counterterrorism as an after-an-attack effort waged in foreign countries.  

“And so, it was pretty frustrating.”  

Former CIA officer Bryan Cunningham explains that 9/11 forced the government to change quickly.  

“Within hours of when President Bush was sitting in that second-grade classroom the national security leadership of his team had completely reversed decades of counter-terrorism policy.”  

The wider “war on terror” that 9/11 launched impacted government finances to the tune of $6 trillion, counting both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interest payments, and future care for veterans.   

9/11 also expanded the government’s information collection reach. The Patriot Act allows for a wide range of surveillance on Americans via special warrants. Though parts of the act have now expired, Torres says the act’s long-term legacy is in breaking down walls within and between federal departments.     

“We had an intelligence investigation. Simultaneously we opened a criminal investigation. And the people that worked each of those could not talk to each other—could not share intelligence, could not share information.” 

So, what about lingering threats on this twentieth anniversary? Torres named cyber-attacks as the biggest national concern.  

“We’ve seen major data breaches that continue to happen not only within the U.S. government, but with major companies.”   

Cunningham sees online extremism as the challenge. “We basically don’t do much of anything to counteract that.”   

Today, Torres is the president of Guidepost Solutions’ Security & Technology Consulting. Cunningham is executive director of UCI Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute. Both agree that twenty years without a major attack has a downside.  

Looking ahead, Torres says “I worry about people becoming complacent, and I see it as we get further away [from 9/11].”  Cunningham has similar concerns, “20 years later we’re retreating back into ourselves. And I’m quite certain we’ll regret it.” 

Sobering thoughts during a solemn time of remembrance. 

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