Long-term impacts of U.S. response to terrorist attacks yet unknown

Published: Saturday, Sept. 10 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Passengers line up for security screening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle in this May 31, 2007 file photo.

Ted S. Warren, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — A politician, a historian and a legal scholar agree on one thing about the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States — the long-term impacts of the nation's response to the acts of terrorism are not yet known.

But 10 years after 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four commercial jets, crashing two into the World Trade Center twin towers, one into the Pentagon and a fourth in a field in rural Pennsylvania, the nation has been forever changed by the ongoing and evolving government response to those events, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The threat is of terrorism and porous borders are real, says Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz. "The challenge is, how do we become more secure and maintain our personal liberties?"

One reponse to that question was the creation in 2002 of the Department of Homeland Security. The department's charge is to coordinate the efforts of 22 agencies responsible for the nation's safety and oversee the country's response to a terrorist attack or natural disaster. The department's creation was the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government since 1947, when President Harry Truman consolidated the armed forces under the Department of Defense.

Some of the agencies under the DHS banner include Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Transportation Security Administration.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the nation's sense of a "terrorist" was largely limited to a Muslim extremist from the Arab peninsula. Over the years, authorities have dealt with a number of cases involving homegrown terrorists. And as Chaffetz is wont to point out, the threat of cyberterrorism is growing, where a successful, large-scale attack could readily hobble the nation.

The most obvious changes in practice and protocol over the past decade have occurred at the nation's airports, where the federal government has instituted more stringent passenger screening practices and policies.

Chaffetz has been particularly critical of whole body screening of airline passengers. He argues that other forms of screening are more effective and do not invade personal privacy.

"In the case of TSA, they're overstepping when you trade personal privacy in the name of security. I think we should demand a world that is more secure and less invasive. There are ways to do that," said Chaffetz, a Republican, who considers the United States the safest nation in the world and believes its efforts in the Middle East to contain international terrorism have been largely successful.

Wayne McCormack, professor of law at the University of Utah and the author of a book on terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, said enhanced screening at airports "weeds out the occasional miscreant from our domestic flights."

However, when people board flights to the United States from airports outside the country, there have been occasions when flight crews were notified during a flight that a passenger on an international watch list is on board.

"It all boils down to what is a reasonable amount of resources and what are the known threats," McCormack said.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, appearing at Georgetown University roundtable discussion on the eighth anniversary of the creation of the department in March, said information sharing among international authorities is improving and treaties are being negotiated to ensure information can be shared real-time yet in a manner that protects individual's privacy rights.

"We are the busiest flight area in the world by a large margin. So we need it in a real time, common format. But we also need to manage the data in such a fashion that concerns about privacy are addressed," Napolitano said at the time.

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