The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks marked the end of one era and the beginning of another in the United States. Condemning the attacks as acts of war, President George W. Bush mobilized the nation to action, sharply departing from the policy of his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who had treated a series of previous terrorist assaults as criminal-justice matters involving only isolated individuals, rather than as acts of war perpetrated by organized terror networks. Particularly noteworthy was al Qaeda's 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed 6 people (and wounded more than 1,000) but was intended to kill many tens of thousands. President Clinton did not visit the bomb crater or tend to the victims. Instead, he warned Americans against "over-reaction."
After that attack, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made by al Qaeda groups to blow up populated targets such as the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and Los Angeles International Airport. Another scheme to hijack multiple commercial airliners and use them as "bombs" (not unlike 9/11) was thwarted in the Philippines.
There were also several successful terrorist operations against U.S. interests during the Clinton years. A 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers, a U.S. military barracks in Saudia Arabia, killed 19 American soldiers. Two years later, al Qaeda agents blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- killing 245 people and injuring 5,000. On October 12, 2000, the warship USS Cole was bombed while re-fueling in Yemen; 17 American sailors were killed and 39 were injured.
Clinton’s former political adviser Dick Morris would later charge: "Clinton’s failure to mobilize America to confront foreign terror after the 1993 attack [on the World Trade Center] led directly to the 9/11 disaster."
On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States. Within months of taking office, he had ordered the formulation of a new strategy for combating terrorism and protecting the homeland. The new plan reached the President’s desk on September 10, 2001.
The cornerstone of America's post-9/11 homeland security program was the Patriot Act (enacted in October 2001), which removed several Clinton-era restrictions that had prevented intelligence and law-enforcement officials from sharing information and working together on investigations. The Patriot Act also gave the Treasury Department more leverage with which to disrupt terrorist financing networks, and it gave the Attorney General more authority to detain and deport suspected terrorist aliens.
The Bush administration's homeland security efforts were compromised to some degree, however, by concerns over the issue of "racial profiling." For instance, Department of Transportation (DoT) lawyers extracted millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements from four major airlines for alleged discrimination after 9/11.
The DoT action against American Airlines (AA) was typical of these specious but successful lawsuits. During the last four months of 2001, AA carried some 23 million passengers and asked ten of them not to board because they raised security concerns that could not be resolved in time for departure. For those ten interventions (and an eleventh in 2002), the DoT declared AA a civil rights pariah whose discriminatory conduct would "result in irreparable harm to the public" if not stopped. AA's defense pointed out that in each case where a passenger had been removed from a flight, it was the result of behavioral warning signs that had caused alarm among other passengers and the flight crew. But in February 2004, the airline, while vehemently denying guilt, settled the action for $1.5 million -- to be spent on "sensitivity training" for its employees. Transportation Department lawyers brought identical suits against United, Delta, and Continental Airlines. While maintaining their innocence, those carriers also settled, pledging more millions for "sensitivity training."
DoT secretary Norman Mineta set the tone for the entire Department when, in a blanket condemnation of racial profiling, he asserted that a grandmother from Vero Beach, Florida, should receive the same scrutiny at the airport as a young Saudi male.
In addition to individual discrimination suits, the federal government applied "disparate impact" analysis on anti-terror measures. Such analysis—which assigns bigotry to neutral policies if they affect different demographic groups to varying degrees—rules out every security procedure that might actually be useful in combating Muslim terrorists, since a screening device for Muslim terrorists cannot, by definition, have the same effect on non-Muslims.
Another grave threat to America's domestic defense during the Bush years (as during previous administrations) was the government's failure to monitor and control the flow of traffic across the nation's borders. Most of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as the other Muslim terrorists who had planned or committed attacks on U.S. soil before 9/11, knew that when they broke visa and other immigration laws in order to carry out their plans, nothing would happen to them. As an al Qaeda website noted in 2002, only 5 percent of the people and goods that crossed the Mexican border each year were inspected. "These are figures that really call for contemplation," al Qaeda added.
With immigration-law enforcement, as with airline security, the major problem was political correctness. Asa Hutchinson, the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security, sent a memo to every immigration, border patrol, and customs agent in the country declaring that "preventing racial profiling is a priority mission of this department."
The Bush administration finally did increase security along the U.S.-Mexico border to some extent during Bush's second term; but its efforts in that regard fell far short of what was needed to effectively seal the border against possible infiltration by foreign terrorists.
While a preoccupation with political correctness clearly hampered homeland security efforts during the Bush administration, it became even more pronounced under Barack Obama, whose first act as President was to order the suspension of all military tribunals that had been established to adjudicate the cases of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. This move was consistent with Obama's view that terrorism is not a matter of war, but rather a criminal-justice issue to be resolved in civilian courts.
In March 2009 the new administration ordered an end to the use of the phrase "War on Terror," a label that had been adopted by the Bush administration shortly after the 9/11 attacks. In a memo sent from the Defense Department's office of security to Pentagon staffers, members were told: "This administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror.' Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"
In a similar spirit, Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, broke with the tradition of warning the American public about potential terrorist threats. Instead, Napolitano began referring to acts of terrorism as "man-caused disasters."
These policies essentially turned a blind eye to the existence of organized terror networks within the U.S. and around the world. Consequently, the Clinton perspective, which viewed terrorist operatives largely as lone-wolf criminals acting on their own, was revived under Obama. This development had enormous implications in terms of how the federal government chose to respond to acts of Islamic terrorism. For example, after an al Qaeda operative attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet in mid-flight near Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009, the Obama administration made clear that it would treat the incident as a law-enforcement matter (to be tried in civilian court).
Adapted, in part, from "How the Left Undermined America's Security Before 9/11," by David Horowitz (March 24, 2004); and from "Homeland Security? Not Yet," by Heather MacDonald (November 16, 2004).