After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong

A mission to rid the world of “terror” and “evil” led America in tragic directions.

Illustration of faces, planes, and red and white stripes
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Garrett M. Graff is a journalist, historian, and the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.

On the Friday after 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the New York City site that the world would come to know as Ground Zero. After rescue workers shouted that they couldn’t hear him as he spoke to them through a bullhorn, he turned toward them and ad-libbed. “I can hear you,” he shouted. “The whole world hears you, and when we find these people who knocked these buildings down, they’ll hear all of us soon.” Everybody roared. At a prayer service later that day, he outlined the clear objective of the task ahead: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press two days later, Vice President Dick Cheney offered his own vengeful promise. “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” he told the host, Tim Russert. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful.” He added, “That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”

In retrospect, Cheney’s comment that morning came to define the U.S. response to the 2001 terrorist attacks over the next two decades, as the United States embraced the “dark side” to fight what was soon dubbed the “Global War on Terror” (the “GWOT” in gov-speak)—an all-encompassing, no-stone-unturned, whole-of-society, and whole-of-government fight against one of history’s great evils.

It was a colossal miscalculation.

The events of September 11, 2001, became the hinge on which all of recent American history would turn, rewriting global alliances, reorganizing the U.S. government, and even changing the feel of daily life, as security checkpoints and magnetometers proliferated inside buildings and protective bollards sprouted like kudzu along America’s streets.

I am the author of an oral history of 9/11. Two of my other books chronicle how that day changed the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts and the government’s doomsday plans. I’ve spent much of this year working on a podcast series about the lingering questions from the attacks. Along the way, I’ve interviewed the Cassandra-like FBI agents who chased Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the attacks; first responders and attack survivors in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; government officials who hid away in bunkers under the White House and in the Virginia countryside as the day unfolded; the passengers aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11; and the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden a decade later. I’ve interviewed directors of the CIA, FBI, and national intelligence; the interrogators in CIA black sites; and the men who found Saddam Hussein in that spider hole in Iraq.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.

The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.

As a society, we succumbed to fear.

The most telling part of September 11, 2001, was the interval between the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, at 8:46 a.m., and the second, at 9:03. In those 17 minutes, the nation’s sheer innocence was on display.

The aftermath of the first crash was live on the nation’s televisions by 8:49 a.m. Though horrified, many Americans who saw those images still went on about their morning. In New York, the commuter-ferry captain Peter Johansen recalled how, afterward, he docked at the Wall Street Terminal and every single one of his passengers got off and walked into Lower Manhattan, even as papers and debris rained down from the damaged North Tower.

At the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush, who was in Florida. They discussed the crash and agreed it was strange. But Rice proceeded with her 9 a.m. staff meeting, as previously scheduled, and Bush went into a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote his No Child Left Behind education agenda. At the FBI, the newly arrived director, Robert Mueller, was actually sitting in a briefing on al-Qaeda and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole when an aide interrupted with news of the first crash; he looked out the window at the bright blue sky and wondered how a plane could have hit the World Trade Center on such a clear day.

Those muted reactions seem inconceivable today but were totally appropriate to the nation that existed that September morning. The conclusion of the Cold War a decade earlier had supposedly ended history. To walk through Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock today is to marvel at how low-stakes everything in the 1990s seemed.

But after that second crash, and then the subsequent ones at the Pentagon and in the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our government panicked. There’s really no other way to say it. Fear spread up the chain of command. Cheney, who had been hustled to safety in the minutes after the second crash, reflected later, “In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.”

The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.

The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact. James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general during some of the frantic post-9/11 era, told me in 2009 that he had been horrified by the unverified intelligence landing each day on the president’s desk. “When I started, I believed that a giant fire hose of information came in the ground floor of the U.S. government and then, as it went up, floor by floor, was whittled down until at the very top the president could drink from the cool, small stream of a water fountain,” Comey said. “I was shocked to find that after 9/11 the fire hose was just being passed up floor by floor. The fire hose every morning hit the FBI director, the attorney general, and then the president.”

According to one report soon after 9/11, a nuclear bomb that terrorists had managed to smuggle into the country was hidden on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This tip turned out to have come from an informant who had misheard a conversation between two men in a bathroom in Ukraine—in other words, from a terrible global game of telephone. For weeks after, Bush would ask in briefings, “Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?”

Even disproved plots added to the impression that the U.S. was under constant attack by a shadowy, relentless, and widespread enemy. Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.”

At the time, some commentators politely noted the danger of tilting at such nebulous concepts, but a stunned American public appeared to crave a bold response imbued with a higher purpose. As the journalist Robert Draper writes in To Start a War, his new history of the Bush administration’s lies, obfuscations, and self-delusions that led from Afghanistan into Iraq, “In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.”

The crash of that second plane at 9:03, live on millions of television sets across the country, had revealed a gap in Americans’ understanding of our world, a gap into which anything and everything—caution and paranoia, liberal internationalism and vengeful militarism, a mission to democratize the Middle East and an ever more pointless campaign amid a military stalemate—might be poured in the name of shared national purpose. The depth of our leaders’ panic and the amorphousness of our enemy led to a long succession of tragic choices.

We chose the wrong way to seek justice.

Before 9/11, the United States had a considered, constitutional, and proven playbook for targeting terrorists: They were arrested anywhere in the world they could be caught, tried in regular federal courts, and, if convicted, sent to federal prison. The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Arrested in Pakistan. The 1998 embassy bombers? Caught in Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere. In Sweden on the very morning of 9/11, FBI agents had arrested an al-Qaeda plotter connected to the attack on the USS Cole. The hunt for the plotters of and accomplices to the new attacks could have been similarly handled in civilian courts, whose civil-liberties protections would have shown the world how even the worst evils met with reasoned justice under the law.

Instead, on November 13, 2001, President Bush announced in an executive order that those rounded up in the War on Terror would be treated not as criminals, or even as prisoners of war, but as part of a murky category that came to be known as “enemy combatants.”

While civil libertarians warned of a dark path ahead, Americans seemed not only to shrug off the new approach but also to embrace the no-holds-barred response. In an odd case of geopolitical life imitating Hollywood, the Kiefer Sutherland counterterrorism fantasy vehicle 24 premiered just as Bush drew his new lines on the War on Terror. The show’s ticking-clock drama and line-crossing protagonist taught Americans that stopping evil meant doing evil, that torturing suspects got results and saved lives. The Fox show was a huge hit, its graphic violence and torture a key selling point to audiences.

The CIA actually adopted the Sutherland approach within weeks of the show’s premiere. The agency set up “black sites” around the world to hold terror suspects and force them to talk. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created and publicly celebrated the prison at Guantánamo, arguing that the sliver of Cuban soil was beyond the reach of U.S. courts, habeas corpus, and due process. The government cut experienced FBI interrogators out of the mix and replaced them with young, untrained military and CIA interrogators. The spy agency hired outside psychologists who designed brutal and scientifically unsound techniques—including beatings, forced nudity, dietary manipulation, sensory deprivation, chaining prisoners in stress positions for hours at a time, confining them in mock coffins, depriving them of sleep, throwing them against a wall, and waterboarding them—that the U.S. called “enhanced interrogation.” Everyone else would call it torture. None of it was conducted under the ticking-clock scenario celebrated by 24; most of these sessions began months and in some cases years after a prisoner was first detained.

Twenty years after 9/11, it’s unclear whether a single meaningful piece of intelligence came out of the torture program, which a U.S. Senate investigation later determined was deployed against dozens of detainees in CIA custody. We tortured CIA detainees and “enemy combatants” in Gitmo whether they seemed useful or not. Similar abuses occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where guards sexually abused and humiliated prisoners. The moral stain from this era was so obvious that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that morphed into the brutal ISIS, later used the imagery against us—parading its own prisoners around in the orange jumpsuits from Gitmo. And yet American leaders continued to embrace the approach anyway. Mitt Romney ran for president promising to “double Guantánamo.” And no senior official, in either the military or the CIA, has ever been held accountable for the deaths, degradations, and abuses inflicted in our name. Quite the opposite: President Donald Trump even promoted Gina Haspel, who had overseen a black site in Thailand, to director of the CIA.

Meanwhile, removing the terror cases from traditional federal courts and sending them to military tribunals has still produced no closure for the families of 9/11 victims. So far, none of the alleged 9/11 plotters sitting in Guantánamo have faced trial. Military-commission proceedings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly a mastermind of the attacks, and four co-defendants are still in a pretrial phase. The trial might start next year—or sometime further in the future. In the meantime, the U.S. military is paying millions of dollars a year to maintain a prison in Cuba housing middle-aged and elderly terror suspects—and in a sign that the military recognizes justice won’t come soon, it has made plans to bring in nursing-home and hospice care in the years ahead. In contrast, the traditional federal courts have repeatedly proved successful in the years since at trying terrorism suspects, including Zacarias Moussaoui—the only person convicted of being a conspirator in the 9/11 plot.

At home, we reorganized the government the wrong way.

Within hours after the 9/11 attacks, serious government failures began to come into focus. The CIA, NSA, and FBI had all overlooked pieces of the plot; bureaucratic inertia and interagency jealousy had prevented the sharing of intelligence that might have disrupted the looming attacks; the CIA had even known that two of the hijackers, known al-Qaeda operatives, were inside the United States. The following March, the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Florida flight school that it had approved visas for two of the 9/11 hijackers, including the ringleader Mohamed Atta. That America’s intelligence, counterterrorism, and law-enforcement systems needed an overhaul had become obvious. Following some initial reluctance, the Bush administration embraced a top-to-bottom reorganization of the federal government around “homeland security,” a phrase with little presence in American life before the attacks.

Certain aspects of the reorganization proved successful. The structure of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Justice Department’s newly created National Security Division have all been net positives inside the government. But the biggest change, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the largest government reorganization since World War II, has consistently proved to be a mistake.

Congress shoehorned politically charged immigration and border-security agencies into the same department with uncontroversial emergency-management programs—a setup that left the latter neglected. But beyond its flawed bureaucratic structure and organizational chart, the DHS has the wrong DNA. Unlike the Justice Department, it has no institutional culture rooted in respect for the rule of law. Unsteeped in America’s traditions of freedom and openness, the new department was built to view everything through a lens of “Can it hurt us?” This corrosive mindset became particularly visible on immigration and border-control issues, as a culture of welcoming new citizens and families shifted to one of questioning and suspicion—especially if you happened to have dark skin.

Homeland Security has helped set up scores of so-called state fusion centers, little-scrutinized entities that ostensibly promote intelligence sharing among multiple levels of government but, in practice, have targeted people, such as members of antiwar groups, who do not remotely qualify as terrorists. The department has also accelerated the militarizing of local and state police departments, which recast themselves as potential front-line responders to terror attacks on the American homeland. Billions of DHS dollars have flooded into America’s cities and small towns and, coupled with programs from the Pentagon, provided police officers with weapons of war—heavily armored military vehicles, rifles, grenade launchers, and other tactical gear. It doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that the transformation of our nation’s police from local guardians to GWOT warriors created more distance between officers and the communities they patrol, and exacerbated the tensions that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. (Similarly, the aggressive, politicized enforcement efforts by the immigration and customs agency forged after 9/11 have prompted a counterreaction in the form of “Abolish ICE.”)

Only the shock of that moment at 9:03 a.m. one Tuesday morning two decades ago can explain why America cobbled together a Frankenstein Cabinet department to fend off terrorists. One DHS section, the newly formed Customs and Border Protection, experienced a surge of growth so poorly executed that the agency became a major corruption threat in the region near the border with Mexico. New agents and officers were sent into the field before background checks were completed. (“We made some mistakes,” one CBP commissioner told me in 2015. “We found out later that we did, in fact, hire cartel members.”)

Even today, the CBP refers to its mission as “keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.” But its agents primarily find themselves working what amounts to a humanitarian mission on the southern border as migrants flee violence in Central America. This mismatch of resources, training, and personnel helps explain why morale among DHS employees is far lower than in the federal government as a whole.

Last summer, DHS agents and officers ran amok across the country following the protests around the murder of George Floyd. Federal officers snatched citizens off the street in Portland, Oregon, and hustled them into unmarked rental vans. Such episodes reveal all too starkly the danger of creating a new law-enforcement bureaucracy at a moment of national anxiety, effectively enshrining fear into law forever.

Abroad, we squandered the world’s goodwill.

A rare bright spot in the period just after 9/11 was that people around the world reacted to an attack on us as if it had been an attack on them, too. But nearly every step the U.S. pursued in the War on Terror from that point forward cost us friends.

The military and diplomatic mistakes that America made in Afghanistan and Iraq are so obvious in hindsight and have been so thoroughly chronicled by others that they need little recounting here. Afghanistan, at the start, appeared set to be a remarkable victory. Within weeks of our invasion, in the fall of 2001, the U.S. was winning a limited, focused war, yet the Bush administration turned to invade Iraq, starting a war of choice loosely justified through the same bad intelligence and fear-mongering that underlay so many of the government’s other decisions. The Iraq debacle led to defeat in Afghanistan, too, despite trillions of dollars in spending and far too much bloodshed in both countries.

In an embrace of cynicism and realpolitik, we relied on allies—most notably Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia—that made our fight more bloody and more costly. Their own officials funded and even harbored the very terror networks we were fighting. These countries’ brutal and corrupt governments were so morally bankrupt that they became recruiting posters for future Islamic extremists.

In Afghanistan, we made common cause with awful men—warlords and corrupt politicians who pillaged communities, laundered and stole American taxpayer money, trafficked drugs, and made backroom deals with the people we were supposed to be fighting. After the brother of Afghanistan’s president was assassinated in 2011, The Guardian eulogized the southern Afghanistan “mafia don” as “corrupt, treacherous, lawless, paradoxical, subservient and charming”—and that’s not even the brother whom U.S. prosecutors actively investigated for alleged corruption. We condoned child rape. We propped up a government that never reflected the will of the people and that looked so illegitimate to its own citizens that it collapsed in days as American forces withdrew this summer. Its leaders were among the first to flee.

We picked the wrong enemies.   

President Bush, it’s worth remembering, worked hard initially to ensure that the fight against al-Qaeda wasn’t seen as a war on Islam. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends,” he said in a national address before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001. “It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” But he also broadened the fight to include the defeat of “every terrorist group of global reach” and flattened it into a conflict of cultural values. In an address to the American people, he declared, “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’ They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Time, along with more fiery rhetoric from Christian evangelical leaders and conservative politicians alike, muddied the message that the U.S. wasn’t at war with Islam, especially as the American success against al-Qaeda morphed into a longer-running battle against offshoots such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. Xenophobia quickly overcame leaders’ better angels, particularly on the right. A war that began against an identifiable ideological group—one condemned by others around the world and whose membership likely numbered only about a hundred hard-core adherents—morphed into a larger fight against “terror” broadly, where extra suspicion would fall on tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands.

Even as the War on Terror rapidly curtailed the ability of any Islamic extremist group to carry out a major, spectacular attack like 9/11, the mentality it created poisoned America and its politics. Hate crimes against Muslims jumped—as did hate crimes against Sikhs, from people too lazy or filled with animosity to bother to understand the difference. In the years ahead, Islamophobic trainings would proliferate inside the FBI and the military, at least until they were exposed in the press. In 2008, GOP speakers insinuated falsely that Barack Obama was a closet Muslim—as if that mere faith, practiced by a billion people around the planet, should be disqualifying for a candidate.

That demonization of Muslims helped give rise to the “birtherism” that Donald Trump embraced to wend his way into the hearts and minds of the Republican Party base, win the GOP’s presidential nomination, and—using a platform that stoked fears of immigrants, ISIS, and terrorists—win the White House.

Meanwhile, for all the original talk of banishing evil from the world, the GWOT’s seemingly exclusive focus on Islamic extremism has led to the neglect of other threats actively killing Americans. In the 20 years since 9/11, thousands of Americans have succumbed to mass killers—just not the ones we went to war against in 2001. The victims have included worshippers in churches, synagogues, and temples; people at shopping malls, movie theaters, and a Walmart; students and faculty at universities and community colleges; professors at a nursing school; children in elementary, middle, and high schools; kids at an Amish school and on a Minnesota Native American reservation; nearly 60 concertgoers who were machine-gunned to death from hotel windows in Las Vegas. But none of those massacres were by the Islamic extremists we’d been spending so much time and money to combat. Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists than by foreign ones. Political pressure kept national-security officials from refocusing attention and resources on the growing threat from white nationalists, armed militias, and other groups energized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim strains of the War on Terror.

That 17-minute delay between the two plane crashes—the brief period during which commuters looked up at the smoke rising from the North Tower and still went about their day—epitomized a New York and an America utterly unrecognizable today. Contrast it with this image: a video of a motorcycle backfiring in Times Square in the summer of 2019. Crowds flee; thousands run for their lives at the mere sound of a long bang. After the choices we made after 9/11 corrupted our national psyche and our politics, we are a fearful and divided country. The fear exacerbates the division. Gun sales have soared.

Ironically, we find ourselves in another fight against a shadowy, shape-shifting foe. The coronavirus has killed the equivalent of the 9/11 death toll every three days for the past 18 months. The total death toll surpasses the entire population of Wyoming. At least one part of the U.S. government’s response has been exemplary: Innovative and effective disease-defeating vaccines have been developed, approved, and administered to the majority of American adults for free at a truly impressive speed. Yet rather than pulling us together, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed Americans even further apart. Historians someday will study this moment and wonder how our society was so fragmented as to fumble a crisis that, in technical terms, we were well equipped to handle.

The answer, unfortunately, will be simple: We are confronting the current crisis with little of the hope, goodwill, and unity that 9/11 initially created, and that reality is inseparable from the fear and suspicion that came to dominate America’s reaction to the 2001 attacks—and yielded a long succession of tragic consequences, cynical choices, and poisonous politics. Looking back after two decades, I can’t escape the conclusion that the enemy we ended up fighting after 9/11 was ourselves.


​​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.