9/11 Milestone Recalls Massive Government Failure

“President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan over the coming months,” the Washington Post reported back in April, “Completing the military exit by the twentieth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that drew the United States into its longest war.” In light of the disaster now playing out in Afghanistan Americans might wonder what government failures contributed to the 9/11 attack.

“The road to 9/11 again illustrates how the large, unwieldy U.S. government tended to underestimate a threat that grew ever greater,” proclaims The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The report documents failures by the CIA, FBI, INS and other agencies and concluded: “We see little evidence that the progress of the plot was disturbed by any government action.” Even so, the report, published in 2004, approves of more government as the solution.

“Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies,” the report contends. “It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.” In addition, “the massive departments and agencies that prevailed in the great struggles of the twentieth century must work together in new ways, so that all the instruments of national power can be combined.”

The response to bureaucratic failure was to create a massive new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security, “combining 22 different federal departments and agencies into a unified, integrated Cabinet agency.” According to President Bush, the new DHS was “the most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over a half-century,” but there was precedent for the expansion.

President Jimmy Carter was also concerned about bureaucratic inefficiency, so he worked to create a new bureaucracy, the Senior Executive Service. SES bosses, under the control of political appointees, “operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 Federal agencies.” Rep. Herb Harris, Virginia Democrat, warned that the SES “will open the door to politicization.” That was also the case with the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2009, the DHS, then under Janet Napolitano, released Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic And Political Climate Fueling Resurgence In Radicalization And Recruitment. This document warns of “white supremacist” types that are “hate-oriented” or “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority.” That misguided focus helps explain why the DHS, FBI, and CIA failed to prevent terrorist attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009; San Bernardino, California, in 2015, and Orlando, Florida, in 2016, among others.

Bureaucracies can be politicized but the exercise of imagination cannot be “bureaucratized” or “routinized.” No government action disturbed the 9/11 plot. Twenty years after that massive attack the federal government is bigger and more unwieldy than ever.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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