Yes, We’re Safer From Terrorism Because of Intelligence Reforms After 9/11. However …

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The mission of America’s intelligence professionals is to deliver timely, relevant, and unbiased information that includes warnings of impending threats to the nation.

Nevertheless, America’s intelligence agencies failed to “connect the dots” and provide adequate warnings that could have prevented the terrorist attacks on our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001.

Are we safer today from international terrorism than 20 years ago? Yes, but …

The affirmative answer is not as clear-cut as we would like it to be.

We are safer in the sense that U.S. intelligence collectors and analysts know a lot more about the terrorist groups that wish to do us harm. Information sharing has improved. We have better indications of potential threats as well.

Why the hesitancy on the question of our safety from terrorist attacks?

The return of the Taliban to power in Kabul is the single biggest disruption to the success of the U.S. and our allies in combating radical Islam around the globe. Intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan dissipated overnight with the just-concluded U.S. withdrawal from that country.

“Over the horizon” collection of intelligence makes for a snappy phrase, but it’s exceedingly difficult to guide that collection without boots on the ground.

Islamic State Khorasan (also known as ISIS-K), the Haqqani network, and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan are but three of the most radical jihadist elements in the world now roaming freely in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The presence of additional, disparate terrorist groups in Afghanistan no longer will be closely monitored and disrupted, which makes us significantly less safe.

This tragic and self-inflicted outcome in Afghanistan resulted from political decisions and not from an intelligence failure to warn political decision-makers in Washington. America’s intelligence professionals provide their best assessments with levels of confidence to the president and the national security team, but it is up to those policymakers to act based on those assessments.

Poor political decisions surrounding the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government have made America and our allies less safe. This outcome is a direct result of poor policy decision-making.

Twenty years ago, 19 hijackers boarded four airliners that were turned into weapons, resulting in the deaths of 2,977 people. Intelligence failed us.

The 9/11 Commission Report issued in 2004 determined there were “fault lines within the U.S. government—between foreign and domestic intelligence, and between and within agencies.” Information related to impending threats that should have been shared between the CIA and the FBI was not shared. Sharing that information might well have prevented the largest attack on U.S. soil in history.

The 9/11 attacks became the catalyst for the most comprehensive reforms to America’s intelligence agencies since the National Security Act of 1947. The commission’s report provided the framework for reforms enacted in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Information sharing between foreign and domestic intelligence agencies became the bedrock of the reforms. In addition, the legislation created the position of the director of national intelligence; the director of the Central Intelligence Agency was given sole responsibility for leading the CIA, however. The FBI became a full-fledged member of the intelligence community in recognition of its vital domestic role.  

But other changes were made before legislative actions caught up.

Immediately after 9/11, America’s spy agencies shifted dramatically to a war footing against an asymmetric, Islamic extremist threat with a global reach. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the CIA and the National Security Agency, among others, moved aggressively to shift their resources in personnel and capabilities to address al-Qaeda threats to the homeland emanating from Afghanistan and anywhere else.

The intelligence community’s capabilities had atrophied during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991. The so-called peace dividend took its toll as the Clinton administration sharply cut intelligence budgets and associated personnel across the decade.

Not only was a dramatic shift necessary to address a much more tactical and nebulous enemy on a totally different type of battlefield, but resources had to be quickly injected into America’s spy agencies. There was no time to waste.

For two decades, the homeland has not suffered a large attack despite relentless attempts by committed terrorists. Their failure to inflict any major damage on us is not a coincidence. Great credit goes to the men and women of the intelligence community.

These are the three reasons for America’s success in thwarting more major attacks on the homeland:

The nation was unified in its support of our leaders to do whatever was necessary to prevent future attacks. The public implicitly recognized that countering those attacks would require not only a change in focus by intelligence agencies but a significant increase in resources to successfully meet challenges from a new type of adversary than the one we faced with the former Soviet Union.

Tactical intelligence collection on specific individuals or terrorist cells proved invaluable in identifying threats to the homeland. America’s premier clandestine intelligence collectors shifted their efforts and applied human and technological resources to identify terrorist plotters and then follow through with disrupting those plots.

The role of allies and partners took on new significance. Many intelligence services in other countries followed America’s lead by breaking down the wall between foreign and domestic security agencies in identifying threats posed by jihadists around the globe. We shared intelligence with those allies, and they reciprocated.

We have spent the past 20 years fighting a very different enemy. America’s intelligence agencies adjusted to the new realities after 9/11.

But tragically, the political decisions to pursue a hasty retreat in Afghanistan snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the war on terror, and Americans are now less safe. 

The reverberations from the events of the past several weeks likely will affect the security of the U.S. and its allies for years to come, and in ways we cannot yet foresee.

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