Security in the United States has undergone a total overhaul since Sept. 11, 2001. You see it at airports, border crossings and even concerts.
But there is no easy answer to whether the changes have made us safer.
Those who think new safety protocols are working argue that the proof is in the pudding: Nothing like the 9/11 terrorist attacks have happened since. Others argue that hostility toward the U.S. has grown because of its post-9/11 policies and wars, making the threat of terrorism greater now than it was. Still others say that threat is (and always was) overblown, and that vast federal spending on counterterrorism has detracted from fighting ordinary crime — the real threat to safety.
A decade out, experts reflect on where we now stand.
Quick on the uptake
In the opinion of William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University in New York, law enforcement officials' post-9/11 power to investigate leads on terrorism without legal holdups and restrictions has indeed led to much tighter security in the past decade.
Largely because of the Patriot Act, legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001 (and extended by President Barack Obama), the FBI can now freely search emails, phone records and financial records without a court order, the Secretary of the Treasury can oversee any and all overseas financial transactions, and immigration authorities have total freedom to detain or deport immigrants suspected of activities related to terrorism. [How Much Did it Cost to Kill Osama bin Laden?]
In short, the Patriot Act dramatically reduced restrictions on law enforcement agencies' abilities to search private information. Though the power that this legislation places in the hands of bureaucrats comes at the expense of citizens' due process rights, Banks said he believes that it has indeed helped to keep terrorists at bay.
More eyes and ears
Alongside policy changes that enable faster reactions to intelligence, there are also now vastly many more ears dedicated to listening out for it. "Remember that there was no Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at all before 9/11," Banks told Life's Little Mysteries. "This is a $60 billion per year entity formed after 9/11 that is entirely devoted to preventing terrorism."
According to DHS spokesman Chris Ortman, approximately 240,000 people work for the department's 22 agencies, which include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the National Guard, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration. The FBI and CIA both operate separately but in collaboration with the DHS, with the FBI focusing on terrorist activities that fall mostly within U.S. borders and the CIA keeping tabs on terrorism abroad. DHS also collaborates with state and local law enforcement officials on issues related to terrorism. [Can You Board a Plane Without a Photo ID?]
A huge number of other organizations are involved as well: According to an investigative report published last year by the Washington Post, 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the U.S., most of which were formed since 2001. Together, the bureaucrats within these agencies write approximately 50,000 intelligence reports per year on suspected terrorist activities.
Some of these reports go toward maintaining a list of suspected domestic and international terrorists (whose activities are monitored by the agencies). As of March, according to the National Counterterrorism Center, the government organization responsible for overseeing the list, there were 640,000 names on it, about 13,000 (2 percent) of whom were U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Mixed track record
Do these extensive counterterrorism and intelligence efforts work? Sometimes. Law enforcement officials have prevented dozens of attempted terrorist attacks in the past decade.
In 2006, for example, the FBI arrested eight al-Qaida loyalists who were planning to bomb New York City subway tunnels. Federal agents discovered the plot while conducting online surveillance of chat rooms. Then in 2007, a 16-month FBI operation led to the arrest of six "radical Islamists" (as described by federal authorities) who were planning to attack and kill soldiers at Fort Dix, a U.S. Army base in New Jersey, using assault rifles and grenades. [The 8 Most Wanted Al-Qaida Terrorists]
The countermeasures sometimes fail, though. In 2009: Army psychologist Nidal Hasan, an American-born man of Palestinian descent, fatally shot 13 soldiers and wounded 29 others at Fort Hood, a base in Texas. He waged the attack after exchanging emails with an al-Qaida-associated cleric based in Yemen, and had been radicalizing in his anti-American views over several years. Many critics, and a formal Pentagon review, later found that the attack could have been prevented by better handling of intelligence.
Banks believes that counterterrorism agencies have successfully stifled the major violent threats of the past decade, but that they aren't doing enough to assess the new and evolving threats that are arising worldwide. "Cyberthreats loom larger now, [including] malware and worms," he explained. "They can impact domestic infrastructure and do considerable harm, as much or more than conventional attacks."
Other new threats may have been borne out of the government's own policies, some of which allow for immediate action against potential terrorists at the expense of civil liberties. Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and deputy director of its Immigrant Rights Project, said that these policies may be detrimental to national security in the long-term by magnifying anti-American sentiments.
"There have been massive civil liberties violations over the past decade from the government's post 9/11 policies," Gelernt wrote in an email. Soon after 9/11, for example, the Bush administration employed legal loopholes (which were later determined to be unconstitutional) to detain terrorism suspects for indefinite periods of time without charging them. "But it is far from clear that these policies have substantially increased our safety."
He continued: "Collaboration with key immigrant communities is crucial to our national security but unfortunately that collaboration has been hindered, not helped, by many of the government's post 9/11 policies."
Some analysts believe that we are only marginally safer now than we were before, if at all, because the threat of terrorism was extremely low in the first place. The 9/11 attack, they say, was a statistical outlier. The protocols put in place since guard against worst-case scenarios, and energy should instead be spent on more imminent threats.
John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University who has written several prize-winning books on the fight against terrorism, said that each of us has a 1-in-3.5 million chance of getting killed in a terrorist attack each year, and that such a low probability is extremely difficult to further reduce. After all, no amount of effort will ever reduce the chances all the way to zero.
Meanwhile, the danger of other types of violent crimes is much higher; we have a 1 in 2,000 chance of getting murdered in any given year, for example. Mueller argues that excessive federal spending on counterterrorism has detracted from efforts to fight and prevent other violent crimes.
"Law enforcement officers, especially the FBI, were pulled away from dealing with ordinary crime to focus very heavily on terrorism," Mueller said. "Terrorism is a very small risk, and so the fact that we're spending money on that instead of crime, which actually does happen, means that [we're not maximizing our safety] as much as we otherwise would be."
In an article in the latest issue of Homeland Security Affairs, Mueller and risk analyst Mark Stewart of the University of Newcastle in Australia state that the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on counterterrorism since 2001 (not including the costs of terrorism-related wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), or $15 billion more per year than it spends on all other domestic crime-fighting efforts combined. [What's the Dollar Value of a Human Life?]
However, the analysts claim that intelligence experts generally assess the global count of al-Qaida jihadists at just 150 people, despite the hundreds of thousands of people that the government spends time and money keeping tabs on. None of those 150 people operate in the United States.
Whether we're truly becoming safer or not, there may be no turning back in this war on terrorism. Mueller and Stewart argue that there's no political mechanism for reducing the government's extravagance: An absence of attacks is always taken as evidence that the efforts have worked, while a new attack will always be taken as evidence that law enforcement officials must go farther still. No politician will ever argue for limiting expenditure on counterterrorism measures for fear of having to bear the blame for any future attack. This dilemma leads to a ballooning of counterterrorism expenditure that these analysts believe grossly outweighs the actual threat, perhaps to the detriment of other crime prevention efforts.
This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.