Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years On

Amidst all the recollections, reflections, and analysis that has been or will be offered today on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an editorial in yesterday's WSJ offered excellent perspective on The 9/11 Decade:

Ten years on, nobody worries about a mad-cow pandemic, an excellent case study of how the West routinely talks itself into bogus panic. There is, however, plenty of talk about how the threat of terrorism has been overhyped, or how America's efforts against terrorists have been a costly distraction from the challenges of a rising China or the faltering economy or global warming or any other crisis, real or hypothetical, that supposedly demands our single-minded focus.

Yet there was nothing hypothetical about what happened in New York, Pennsylvania or at the Pentagon that day, nor anything bogus about the anthrax attacks, still not definitively solved in our view, later that month. The same can be said of subsequent atrocities in Karachi, Tel Aviv, Bali, Madrid, Beslan, London, Amman, Baghdad, Mumbai and Fort Hood, among many other places. And while the risk that terrorist groups could use weapons of mass destruction so far remains mostly speculative, there is little doubt that they will use them to kill unlimited numbers of people if only they can acquire them.

Put simply, by the evening of 9/11 it was clear that the threat of Islamic terrorism was real, urgent and growing, and that it would require from the Bush Administration a serious and sustained response, both on offense and defense. Few Members of either party doubted this when the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed the Senate 98-0 a week after 9/11, or when the Patriot Act passed in the Senate by a vote of 98-1 the following month, or when the authorization for the war in Iraq passed the Senate 77-23 a year later.

Nor were many doubts expressed by senior members of the House and Senate (including Nancy Pelosi) when they were repeatedly briefed by the Bush Administration on the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, including waterboarding, or on the warrantless wiretap surveillance program, or on the CIA's use of "black sites" to interrogate terrorist suspects. "We understood what the CIA was doing. . . . On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support to carry out its mission against al Qaeda," recalled Porter Goss, then the Chairman of House Intelligence Committee, in an April 2009 Washington Post op-ed.

The comity wouldn't last. Yet from the perspective of a decade, what's notable about the counter-terrorist architecture erected by the Bush Administration (with initial bipartisan support) is how effective it has been. On 9/12, few people would have dared venture the prediction that the U.S. would not suffer another major attack for at least a decade. But that's what happened—or, to put it more accurately, what has been achieved.