Author’s note: In the course of the months I spent reporting “Is America Any Safer?,” I had the cooperation of most of the key officials—some well known, others who worked in relative obscurity—involved over the last 15 years in America’s post-9/11 homeland security build-up, including senior officials in the Obama administration who bear that responsibility today. Although I could not arrange an in-person interview with President Obama, he did agree to provide answers through an email exchange. Of course, that means that his answers are not spontaneous and cannot be probed with immediate follow-ups. And it runs the risk that the replies are actually produced by a committee of aides. However, I was assured that president had personally provided these answers.
Steven Brill: September 11 was for all Americans the first time since Pearl Harbor (which was a far-away military base) that we were attacked on our own soil. How do you think that new vulnerability affected the American psyche and what Americans expect from their government? And where were you on September 11, and how did the attack immediately change your outlook?
Barack Obama: We were living in Chicago. Sasha was only a few months old, and Michelle had taken the girls to drop Malia off at preschool. I was a state senator and was driving to [the] State of Illinois Building when I heard the first reports on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. Like most people, at first I assumed it was a small plane or an accident. By the time I arrived at work, the second plane had hit, and we evacuated. Along with thousands of other people, I stood in the street and looked up at the Sears Tower, fearing it might be a target, too. Later, at my law office, we watched the television in disbelief as the towers came crashing down.