What America Has Lost

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

It's clear we overreacted to 9/11.

Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden's terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda's best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.

I do not minimize Al Qaeda's intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength. In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy. In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.

The error this time is more damaging. September 11 was a shock to the American psyche and the American system. As a result, we overreacted. In a crucially important Washington Post reporting project, "Top Secret America," Dana Priest and William Arkin spent two years gathering information on how 9/11 has really changed America.

Here are some of the highlights. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That's more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet--the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built--at a cost of $3.4 billion--to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

This new system produces 50,000 reports a year--136 a day!--which of course means few ever get read. …