Ten years on, what’s been done to prevent this again?

The 2001 anthrax killings sparked intense media scrutiny of the US government’s response. Now the 9/11 hijackers posed an obvious counterproposal—but in the decade since, the US was mostly silent. Why has it taken so long for this problem to be truly addressed?

Q: What was wrong with the US security apparatus right after 9/11?

A: Not enough speed and intelligence. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida had been planning to strike in the US for about two years when he and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, unveiled plans to seize all US cities with the final objective of destroying Washington DC and U.S. cultural and economic institutions. The administration of President George W. Bush of the first Bush administration, however, failed to act on intelligence-gathering and co-ordination between the CIA and FBI. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations—a group that intelligence analysts describe as “factional and highly dysfunctional”—controlled much of the CIA’s valuable biometrics data and organised collection of highly sensitive information. Among other things, the CIA ran a network of intelligence-gathering groups called “black sites” in secret locations in the US, where terrorists were interrogated using high-tech interrogation techniques.

Among these measures were waterboarding, stress positions, prolonged sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation for periods longer than was medically necessary, psychological assault such as suspension from high heights on a piece of rubber. Banned methods included binding the detainee’s hands and feet to the ceiling for long periods, sexual humiliation, exposure to extreme temperatures and subjecting them to extreme physical and emotional discomfort. The US sought to minimise its international reputation. Several agencies—the CIA, FBI, NSA and State Department—were involved in, or engaged in closely coordinating with, the CIA’s work. While criticism from members of Congress had been aired for years, torture was not yet illegal. The results are now in: two dead Americans, nearly 500 serious illnesses and $11bn in economic damage caused by the attacks.

Following 9/11, then-FBI director Robert Mueller’s reaction to a blunder by a senior FBI agent apparently coordinating with the CIA was to assign him the president’s position as “chief of counterterrorist operations”. The head of counterterrorism was a man who did not believe in torture. His successor was Mr Mueller’s close associate, Robert E Ivell. The former insisted that “even if they don’t make us feel well or secure, they make us feel strong and protected”.

In recent years the CIA’s sister organisation, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), has brought numerous terrorists before federal courts, where the prosecution accused them of “cowardice” in not tapping into the federal government’s own assets and expertise to thwart the attacks. OSI did not do this in 2001. Initially, the CIA and FBI simply followed orders from the OCS. The OCS director, who was not allowed to meet individual agents, saw the result: agents were frightened of crossing the CIA, and they refused to help the FBI investigate specific terrorist targets.

This war on terror has been a long, damaging and expensive operation. A recent study calculated that the expenditure would amount to $6.3 trillion through 2038. The amount was calculated by the Cato Institute in Washington, a right-wing think-tank. The figures don’t include the expense of disposing of leftover biological agents. Professor Justin Scally, of Princeton University, has also asked whether US laws preventing torture were followed after 9/11. He concludes that they were: “a nominal contingency clause or procedural exception to federal law. The terrorist threat lasted six years, well beyond the term of the law enacted.”


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