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How The Bush Administration Permanently Shaped National Security After 9/11


We have been hearing services and ceremonies to mark the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years later. The shock and horror of those attacks changed dramatically the U.S.'s approach to security at home and overseas. Expanded government powers were approved with little opposition in Congress or opposition from an American public that was shaken by the attacks and feared more. Today, President George W. Bush, of course, who was in office at the time, spoke at Shanksville, Penn., where passengers wrested control from the hijackers of United Flight 93, crashing it into a field there. Here's some of what President Bush said.


GEORGE W BUSH: So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together. I come without explanations or solutions.

SIMON: We're joined now by NPR's senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: He offered, of course, no explanations or solutions. It does make us recall there was a bipartisan approach to America's security establishment following the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, wasn't there?

ELVING: Yes, there was a great deal of unity for a period of time, and Congress was willing to give President Bush just about anything that he asked for. And his approval ratings went to 90%, and he asserted that we were going to have our retribution on the terrorists who had struck America.

SIMON: Help us understand how the security establishment and strategic interests of the U.S. changed in those days.

ELVING: It wasn't quite overnight, but it did seem that way compared to years of complacency, really, on the national security front after the fall of the Soviet Union. We didn't think we had any global rivals. And many of us were unaware of the Islamic world, especially the portions of it that were resentful toward the United States. This was a world we had ignored or dismissed for far too long.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) God bless America, my home sweet home.

ELVING: It was an impromptu choir of scores of members of Congress straggling back to the Capitol after the all-clear had sounded, lingering on the steps still in shock, wondering what might be next.


BUSH: I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

ELVING: That was President George W. Bush at the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center in New York three days after the attack sounding a theme that would reverberate for the next 20 years. America had been knocked down, but America would be back. And someone would be sorry.


BUSH: Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there.

ELVING: Indeed, it did not end. The terror organization associated with 9/11 would be routed from its base in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks. But the fighting there would stretch on another 20 years until last month, when the U.S. ceded the country back to the Taliban. Bush and three succeeding presidents sent troops to Afghanistan using not a declaration of war, but a congressional authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, enacted in 2001 and still in effect today. Also in 2001, Congress enacted a sweeping security law known as the Patriot Act, giving the government unprecedented powers of surveillance and investigation. Together, these laws would empower the Bush administration as it went after the al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden. Failing to capture him, the Bush administration turned to a variety of other targets, international and domestic.

The AUMF and Patriot Act were used to justify ground troops, bombings, drone strikes and indefinite detention at foreign sites. The U.S. created an offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for holding hundreds of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Closer to home, Congress created a new behemoth of national security called the Department of Homeland Security. It combined 22 agencies from the Secret Service to the peacetime Coast Guard. The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency took over, as did a new version of transportation security, searching luggage and passengers at airports.

Congress also approved a second AUMF, this specifically for Iraq. Bush acknowledged Iraq had not been involved in the 9/11 attacks, but he accused its dictator, Saddam Hussein, of being a supporter of terrorism and a developer of weapons of mass destruction. Here's Bush addressing the nation in March of 2003.


BUSH: My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

ELVING: Bush was reelected in 2004, largely on the strength of his response to 9/11. But even then, support for the war on terror was waning. And revulsion was rising as Americans heard reports of torture, such as waterboarding and other techniques used to obtain information about potential attacks. The administration denied allegations of torture. This is CIA Director George Tenet in 2007 on CBS's "60 Minutes."


GEORGE TENET: Well, we don't torture people. Let me say that again to you. We don't torture people.

ELVING: Yet, as early as 2004, CBS News and others had obtained photographs of life inside a prison in Iraq known as Abu Ghraib, where U.S. personnel had subjected prisoners to physical and sexual abuse. Documents known as the torture papers would emerge years after the invasion of Iraq to show the use of torture had been accepted. The theory was that the Geneva Convention, the international rules of war, did not apply. But the U.S. Supreme Court would hold in 2006 that the rules indeed did apply. And by 2014, the agency admitted that it did use those techniques.

Over the course of two decades, such moral conflicts and other forms of fallout from 9/11 have become a permanent part of our history and a part of who we are. And while we observe the day of 9/11 and honor all we've lost that day, we also count the costs that came in the years that followed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.