One of the most pernicious tropes in public life is the idea of the even trade-off between security and freedom. Tony Abbott, Australia's atrocious new prime minister, invoked it in a recent speech justifying broad new "anti-terrorism" powers because of the threat from ISIS:
Regrettably, for some time to come, the delicate balance between freedom and security may have to shift. There may be more restrictions on some so that there can be more protections for others. [The Intercept]
By this view, freedom and security are on a simple, straightforward see-saw. Take from one side, automatically get more on the other. Repeal the Fourth Amendment and the murder rate plummets. Burn down habeas corpus and the Bad Guys start dropping dead of their own accord. Such a view might contain a grain of truth in certain circumstances — like curfews in an active war zone, for instance. But when it comes to counterterrorism, this is a complete crock.
Just consider for a moment how terrorism is done. Would-be attackers sneak around their target nation, assembling the tools needed to carry out an act of violence against citizens, trying to avoid notice by the authorities or by regular citizens who might turn them in. This isn't like fighting the Japanese Navy.
Thus, the first and most important step to fighting terrorism is simple bureaucratic competence and professionalism.
This has been notably absent from American institutions both before and after 9/11. In her book The Dark Side, Jane Mayer details one particularly egregious incident. Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, an FBI agent named Miller, working on loan at the CIA, repeatedly tried to send intelligence to the FBI brass that an al Qaeda member had entered the United States. His supervisor ("Mike," real identity unknown) at the CIA twice refused. But:
Oddly, three hours after "Mike" told Miller to hold off on sending the memo, formally known as a Central Intelligence Report, he nonetheless notified his bosses that the information had been shared with the FBI. The CIA assumed from then on that it had been. But it never was. The contradiction has never been explained. An investigator with the 9/11 Commission who tried to sort through the details said of "Mike," "He said he couldn't remember what happened." Astonishingly, "Mike," the investigator later learned, was given a promotion by the Agency after September 11. [The Dark Side]
In other words, it was a pattern of fumble-fingered bureaucratic goofs and pointless pissing matches, not the lack of an illegal torture program, that prevented American agencies from stopping 9/11.
After the attacks, the CIA shamefacedly handed over all the intelligence it had been holding on al Qaeda. Then–FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, by all accounts just about the best counterterrorism specialist this country has ever produced, was in Yemen at the time. He described his reaction to seeing the reports for the first time:
I walked out of the room, sprinted down the corridor to the bathroom, and fell to the floor next to a stall. There I threw up...The same thought kept looping back: "If they had all this information since January 2000, why the hell didn't they pass it on?" My whole body was shaking. [The Black Banners]
As Mayer notes, according to a 2007 CIA Inspector General report, something like 50-60 people in the CIA were aware that two members of al Qaeda were inside the United States, yet none of them told the FBI.
It didn't get any better after 9/11 either. After the pointless brutality, the most striking characteristic of America's post-9/11 counterterrorism policy has been the sheer amateurism. The CIA designed its illegal torture program by copy-pasting from the Special Forces program for resisting abusive treatment — which doesn't even have anything to do with gathering intelligence from interrogation. Totally inexperienced chumps were put in charge of major interrogations, over the howling objections of competent agents like Soufan, and they achieved nothing. Later, videotapes of those interrogations were destroyed out of a fear of prosecution. After some stunningly incompetent spycraft, 23 CIA agents were convicted of kidnapping by Italian courts. Another innocent German citizen, confused with someone else with a similar name, was kidnapped off the street and tortured.
This raises the question: If our security agencies have been so wretched, why haven't we been attacked again by al Qaeda or someone similar? The first conclusion is that policy hasn't been 100 percent bad. The FBI is still better than the CIA, and some programs (strengthening cockpit doors, for instance) are good. But the deeper conclusion is that that there are only a handful of people who would commit terrorist acts, and stopping them is pretty easy. Major attacks like 9/11 are very hard to execute. But spree killings with a simple firearm would be quite easy to do in a country as awash with weapons as America is (indeed, it happens all the time; we just don't call it terrorism when non-Muslims do it). The fact that we haven't had hundreds of mass shootings from jihadists, despite our security agencies being largely run by clowns, is strong evidence that there just isn't much threat there.