After the Sept. 11 attacks, the security colossus constructed to protect the United States from al-Qaida and its ilk fueled growth in surveillance technology and lavish federal spending. The federal-budget crunch, a sense that major attacks on the United States are unlikely and bipartisan skepticism of the counterterrorism bureaucracy may end all that.
WASHINGTON — Last week, a Bangladeshi student was charged in an FBI sting operation with plotting to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. A Somali-American man admitted sending young recruits from Minneapolis to a terrorist group in Somalia. In Libya, extremists responsible for the killing of four Americans last month in Benghazi remained at large.
The drumbeat of terrorism news never quite stops. As a result, for 11 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the security colossus constructed to protect the nation from al-Qaida and its ilk has continued to grow, propelled by public anxiety, stunning advances in surveillance technology and lavish federal spending.
Now that may be changing. The looming federal-budget crunch, a sense that major attacks on the United States are unlikely and new bipartisan criticism of the sprawling counterterrorism bureaucracy may mean the open-checkbook era is nearing an end.
While the presidential candidates have clashed over security for U.S. diplomats in Libya, their campaigns have scarcely mentioned homeland security. That is for a reason: Less than one-half of 1 percent of Americans, in a Gallup poll in September, said terrorism was the country’s most important problem.
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But the next administration may face a decision: Has the time come to scale back security spending, eliminating the least productive programs? Or, with tumult in the Arab world and the United States still a prime target, would that be dangerous?
Many security experts believe a retrenchment is inevitable and justified.
“After 9/11, we had to respond with everything we had, not knowing what would work best,” said Rick Nelson, a former Navy helicopter pilot who served in several counterterrorism positions and now works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s a model we can no longer afford, financially or politically.”
Michael Hayden, who led both the National Security Agency and the CIA in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, agrees that the time will come for security spending to be scaled back and believes that citizens need to decide when. Personally, he would wait .
“I would stand fast for now,” said Hayden, an adviser to Mitt Romney.
In the view of most specialists, the danger to U.S. territory from al-Qaida and its allies is far less than in 2001. Al-Qaida’s leaders have been relentlessly hunted, its ideology was rejected by most of the young Muslims who led the Arab revolts, and its U.S. recruits have been few. Of more than 160,000 homicides in the country since 9/11, just 14 — about 1 in 1,000 — were carried out by al-Qaida sympathizers in the name of jihad.
Some of the credit is no doubt due to homeland-security programs that cost taxpayers about $690 billion over the decade after 9/11, according to John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University.
That money has paid for an alphabet soup of new agencies: the Homeland Security Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center and many others, each with a supporting cast of contractors. Old agencies like the CIA and the FBI have bulked up, and a record 4.8 million people hold security clearances.
For years, counterterrorism programs have been met mostly with cheerleading on Capitol Hill, despite billions spent on programs that turned out to be troubled or ineffective: “puffer” machines for airport screening that were warehoused, a high-tech surveillance program on the border with Mexico that was shut down, costly machines to sniff city air for biological weapons that produced too many false positives.
No previous congressional criticism of counterterrorism programs, however, has been quite so scathing as a bipartisan Senate subcommittee report this month on more than 70 “fusion centers” nationwide, created to help federal, state and local authorities share threat information.
The two-year investigation found that the centers had failed to help disrupt a single terrorist plot, even as they spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and infringed on civil liberties.
But senior senators, Homeland Security and a half-dozen law-enforcement groups rushed to criticize the report and defend the centers, which, not coincidentally, provide jobs and spending in every state.
Like other intelligence officials after 2001, Hayden was whipsawed by public wrath: first, for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, and then, a few years later, for having permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects in the United States without court approval.
Perhaps, as a result, he often says that the American people need to instruct the government on where to draw the line. He told an audience at the University of Michigan last month, for instance, that while a plot on the scale of 9/11 was highly unlikely, smaller terrorist strikes, like the shootings by an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, could not always be stopped.
“I can actually work to make this less likely than it is today,” Hayden said. “But the question I have for you is: What of your privacy, what of your convenience, what of your commerce do you want to give up?”
Ubiquitous new technology has made it far easier for agencies to keep watch on Americans, using cellphones that track location, Internet monitoring, video surveillance cameras, facial-recognition software and license-plate readers. And the government increasingly taps into the huge amounts of data that companies gather.
“I think the greatest threat to privacy these days is the enormous amount of data in the hands of private companies that could be misused — either by the government or by companies,” said John Villasenor, an electrical engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the social impact of technology.
“Today almost everything we do is recorded by default.”