Just hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush said, "The resolve of our great nation is being tested." So here we are 20 years later. Have we passed the test?



Just after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush tried to reassure a shocked and terrified nation.


GEORGE W BUSH: The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake. We will show the world that we will pass this test.

SIMON: So now 20 years later, did the U.S. pass that test? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has this story.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: As President Bush flew back to Washington on Air Force One following those remarks on Sept. 11, he was accompanied by Michael Morell, the CIA officer who briefed the president daily. Morell was in touch with CIA headquarters, which had given him heart-stopping intelligence that he had to urgently relay to the president.

MICHAEL MORELL: The message was that what happened that morning was the first of two waves of attacks against the United States.

MYRE: In the end, there was no second wave. And in the past 20 years, the only deadly attack carried out in the U.S. with a direct link to al-Qaida was a 2019 shooting by a Saudi Arabian aviation student that killed three people at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.

So is the U.S. safer today than 20 years ago? We asked several former officials who served in senior positions over the past two decades. Their collective answer could be summarized as yes, but.

JANE HARMAN: We are safer. We have done a lot to prevent another major catastrophic attack.

MYRE: Jane Harman was a Democratic congresswoman from California, a leading member of the House Intelligence Committee. She was walking to the Capitol dome when the 9/11 news broke.

HARMAN: That dome where I was headed was the intended target of the fourth plane.

MYRE: The one that crashed in Pennsylvania.

HARMAN: So, yeah, this is kind of personal.

MYRE: She's quick to add that the U.S. response since 9/11 has included many damaging mistakes and considers herself among those responsible.

HARMAN: What we did wrong going forward was we exceeded the mission. The mission was to degrade the ability of al-Qaida to attack us again. We did that very quickly. But, I mean, we stayed. There was mission creep. We over-militarized our response.

MYRE: That was in Afghanistan. The other huge misstep, she says, was invading Iraq on the false premise that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction.

HARMAN: I supported the resolution on Iraq because I believed that intelligence. So that was mistake probably primo, No. 1.

MYRE: Doug Lute, known as the war czar for Iraq and Afghanistan, was on President Obama's National Security Council. The retired army lieutenant general says the U.S. is now safer because of advances in military firepower.

DOUG LUTE: We literally have the ability to strike anywhere in the world almost overnight. We can do it from the air. We can do it from a - systems launched at sea. We can do it with people on the ground.

MYRE: But he says the U.S. has inflicted considerable harm on itself for failing to live up to its values at home and abroad.

LUTE: You see a slippage in democratic values here in the United States, which hard to refute after witnessing the example of January 6, but also overseas. I mean, this notion of extreme interrogation measures, a euphemism for torture - certainly, that's not in accordance with American values.

MYRE: Janet Napolitano, who ran the Department of Homeland Security, says the country needs to think more broadly about the definition of national security. Her list now includes...

JANET NAPOLITANO: Border security, ransomware attack, pandemic, mass shootings, natural disasters, misinformation, disinformation.

MYRE: In her 2019 book "How Safe Are We?" she defends Homeland Security against critics who consider it an unwieldy bureaucracy trying to do too many different things. She says the department's many different agencies are needed to deal with threats that keep changing.

NAPOLITANO: The risk environment evolves. It would be virtually impossible for hijackers to take over commercial airliners and weaponize them. On the other hand, risks due to cyberattacks have only continued to increase.

MYRE: Michael Morell has now retired from the CIA, but he has a podcast called "Intelligence Matters." And he says he still tries to get inside the head of old adversaries. He wonders what Osama bin Laden would think if he were alive today.

MORELL: I think he would be pretty happy. He would look at the number of extremists in the world today, and he would see a number much larger than existed on September 10, 2001. He would also believe that he had weakened America as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq not only militarily, but politically.

MYRE: Yes, Morell says, we are safer. We passed the test. But we suffered some real damage along the way.

Greg Myre, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.