Washington, D.C. (August 9, 2016)—On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists used four jetliners as guided missiles to kill 2,977 people, enveloping the nation in an aura of fear and vulnerability. Fifteen years later, and after $1 trillion has been spent, The Atlantic's latest cover story by Steven Brill tells the story of the September 12 era: how we have confronted—sometimes heroically and sometimes irrationally—the mechanics, politics, and psychic challenges of the threat of terrorism at home.
The Atlantic's September cover story, "Are We Any Safer?," is now on TheAtlantic.com. The multimedia package includes a video in which Brill unpacks the little-discussed impact of a dirty bomb in a U.S. city, and an email exchange between President Barack Obama and Brill, in which the president reflects on the lessons of September 11 and how that has informed his approach to evolving threats to the homeland.
In a year of intensive reporting, Brill scoured the 9/11 response: interviewing key national-security players—including Obama, Jeh Johnson, James Comey, Richard Clarke, Tom Ridge, Ray Kelly, and Janet Napolitano—and poring through thousands of pages of Government Accountability Office reports and congressional testimony. The article looks at the initial shock following the "failure to connect the dots," as well as the creation of an entirely new security apparatus. It is a the story of extraordinary progress and extravagant failures. From the rise of the Islamic State and lone wolves to the seeming inevitability of a dirty bomb, threats are evolving faster than efforts against them. All of this raises a much larger question: How do we come to terms with the fact that we'll never be completely safe?
Among the United States' many security successes, Brill's investigation reveals some wildly ineffective spending along the way:
- FirstNet: The prize for the most wasteful post-9/11 initiative arguably should go to FirstNet—an agency set up to provide a telecommunications system exclusively for firefighters, police, and other first responders. Fifteen years after the problem it was supposed to solve was identified, it is still years from completion—and it may never get completed at all. According to the GAO, estimates of its cost range from $12 billion to $47 billion, even as advances in digital technology seem to have eliminated its very need.
- Air Marshals: On the hundreds of thousands of flights carrying undercover air marshals since 9/11, not a single hijacker has been taken down. In fact, there have been more arrests of air marshals since 9/11 (for off-duty conduct such as drunk driving) than by air marshals in airports or on planes.
- BioWatch: It is still not known whether the $1 billion biodefense sensors that were deployed following the terrifying anthrax attacks that came a week after 9/11 and are still in place today actually work. Many experts doubt they do. In fact, BioWatch is considered such a dud that local officials routinely ignore any alarms that federal homeland-security officials pass along from it. Yet new technology to replace the old sensors is now more than 10 years overdue, and homeland-security officials say it is still three to eight years away. "The bioterror threat hasn't receded," Brill writes. "If anything...advances in science and technology have made it easier to launch these kinds of weapons. But the nation's attention has receded—which is emblematic of the roller-coaster way our democracy and its leaders deal with risks."
- Radioactive Material: Despite significant work done by the Obama administration, large quantities of radioactive material sit unguarded at hospitals, warehouses, and industrial facilities in the U.S. Responsibility for guarding this material is split between the National Nuclear Security Initiative and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both units of the Energy Department. Yet efforts to secure radioactive material have been hamstrung by turf battles between the two agencies—with the agency that has the power to enforce security measures, the NRC, only requiring protections that its sister agency, the NNSA, considers dangerously lax.
- Beltway Boondoggles: Two billion dollars was doled out to improve the Transportation Security Administration's screening of checked bags for bombs, but the new equipment yielded no discernible improvement. Another $1 billion was wasted on a network of motion sensors and camera towers across just a fraction of the U.S. border with Mexico as the first step in what was to be a $5 billion program. Once deployed, however, the system's sensors set off alarms when all varieties of wildlife moved around, and its cameras swayed in the wind and failed to provide visibility in areas where the land wasn't level. The program was finally euthanized in 2011, after which an Israeli firm was brought in to provide a system that apparently works.
- Failure to Use the Bully Pulpit: Brill finds that the Obama administration quietly changed the guidelines for what kind of evacuation would be necessary if a dirty bomb were detonated in a major city, so that there would not be an overreaction to what experts consider to be the relatively limited threat to life that such an explosion would create. This makes sense, Brill reports. But the president and his staff missed the opportunity to create an important teachable moment—explaining to the public that a dirty bomb is more about fear of radiation than about the reality of mass radiation poisoning. Instead, the guideline changes might be seen as an "anticipatory cover-up" if a bomb is detonated, Brill says. "Imagine the eruption from the Trump campaign," he writes, "that could come from an administration attempt to explain the loosened guidelines the day after an ISIL-inspired group used a dirty bomb as the ultimate October surprise aimed at disrupting the upcoming election."
In conjunction with the cover story, The Atlantic will host "Fifteen Years Later: Are We Any Safer?," a half-day event on Thursday, September 8 in Washington, D.C. The program will gather top security and policy players to examine the strengths and remaining vulnerabilities of our security apparatus and our preparedness to prevent the next terrorist attack. For more information visit theatlantic.com/15-years-
The Atlantic's entire September issue is online today and on newsstands this week. Please be in touch with the media contacts below with interview requests or for more information.