Are we safer? Fifteen years is just a number, a solemn one for those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and a single moment cannot capture the challenges we still have in our safety and security. An anniversary assessment is misleading from the start: It assumes that there is some place we need to be and that the journey can be measured by how close to the finish line we have crawled. But there isn’t a single point known as “safe,” not in a nation like ours and not with the numerous threats we face beyond terror — hurricanes and flooding, cyber crime and Zika, oil spills and mining disasters.
The best way to conceptualize where we are, then, is to judge our policies by three criteria: How well does the effort minimize the risks, maximize our defenses, and maintain our collective spirit as Americans and communities? The list of post-9/11 efforts is long, and gaps in our security remain. As someone who has been in the homeland security field since well before 9/11, here’s what I know about some of the systemic changes that are further along than the public may know — and those that remain stubbornly unchanged.
Better Flow: The specific criteria governing coordination at the border are exceptionally strong, even as serious discussions about immigration reform can be difficult to assess given the partisan and political bickering around the issues. Various agencies have now aligned efforts so that the flow of people and goods is more secure and effective. No other country has an aviation system burdened by so much activity — nearly 900 million travelers pass through US airports every year. Yet the average wait time in security lines at US airports is less than 10 minutes, despite everything that goes wrong with the TSA. And the increased screening of goods at US ports has not significantly hampered the flow of those goods, showing that we can balance security and commerce. Meanwhile, with increased security and cockpit door protections, no one is hijacking US planes.
An All-Hazards Approach: If 9/11 created our homeland security enterprise, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was its course correction. As the country recognized that it had neglected to nurture an “all hazards” approach to response and recovery — in other words, to recognize that first responders from numerous disciplines, across levels of government, needed to train and prepare for any and all risks — the changes to response protocols were aggressive. It took some time and a lot of money, but in the past few years the country has essentially built a national preparedness structure.
Strength in One America: Donald Trump is certainly pushing the envelope, but there is still a strong bipartisan effort and commitment to ensure that Muslims, Arabs, and members of other communities of interest are integrated into America’s homeland security efforts. Not by any means perfect, certainly, but no serious person in counterterrorism or homeland security actually believes that antagonizing those groups makes for good counterterrorism strategy. Compared with the more entrenched prejudice in Europe, the United States’ efforts are worth celebrating and sustaining — in case, after the next attack, we forget.
Overcomplicated Oversight: It’s easy to attack Congress, but it is also necessary. Since the 2003 creation of the Department of Homeland Security, Congress has not reformed its organizational oversight, instead holding onto its historic jurisdiction. Homeland Security combined 22 departments and agencies, which means 108 congressional committees and subcommittees have a piece of the pie. This has an impact on the time and resources the department spends on catering to each of these committees. It also means that the department, which certainly has its share of problems, often gets no reauthorization, no constructive oversight, no budget predictability, and no strong legislation.
Limited Intelligence Sharing: The proverbial “connecting the dots” is still a significant work in progress. Outside the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, there is a marked gap in what information is shared with state and local authorities, let alone with the private sector. It’s a morass of agencies, programs, and watch lists that often seems to come up short — as we have seen in Boston, San Bernardino, and Orlando. While there is tremendous focus on intelligence sharing about people, one major gap remains: Small packages coming into the United States from foreign postal services are not monitored or tracked, as required by law. This problem isn’t just about terror; it has also made it possible to bring drugs such as opioids into this country. (Disclosure: I recently became senior adviser to Americans for Securing All Packages, a nonpartisan group advocating for better screening.)
Too Little Focus on Recovery: There is still a heavy investment focus on prevention rather than response and recovery efforts when disasters, attacks, or crises do occur. Politics often drive these priorities, so we haven’t actually invested in the programs and policies — including stronger infrastructure, changes to flood insurance programs, and legal requirements for corporations to invest in fallback systems — that would make us better prepared for the next event.
Fifteen years from now, there will be new threats and unique risks; the next generation in charge will not have grown up in the shadow of 9/11. The lists and priorities will change, but the mission will still exist. There is simply no finish line.Juliette Kayyem served as a homeland security adviser to Governor Deval Patrick and as assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. The founder of Kayyem Solutions and a faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government, she is a WGBH contributor and the author of the book “Security Mom.” Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: This story has been updated to include a disclosure about new consulting work by the author.