Post-9/11 Antiterrorism Measures Should Be More Targeted, Says New Book

Immigration expert argues border security should use risk-management approach that values openness


After the 9/11 attacks, there were two main schools of thought about how to prevent the next terrorist incident.

Some wanted to stop, detain, and question everyone suspected of knowing anything about terrorism. Others pushed for a more targeted, risk-management approach, recognizing that openness was an economic asset, even if it meant slightly higher odds of another attack. Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explores the debate over these approaches in his new book, The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11.

Alden's book reveals some new information about the government's response to 9/11 and offers recommendations for dealing with terrorism and immigration: treat them as independent issues with separate solutions.

Excerpts from a U.S. News interview:

What did the Customs Service know about the hijackers?

As a legacy of the drug war, the Customs Service actually had a record of every international flight coming into the country. But because of the way the information was collected from the airlines, they also had a record of the passenger list of every domestic flight as well. Within two hours of the 9/11 attacks, customs had gone through the passenger records of the four flights and told the FBI the identities of the 19 hijackers. They also had phone numbers and credit card info that allowed them to quickly link the hijackers. It became evident to customs that they might be able to use this information to head off another terrorist attack, which is why customs belonged to the group that backed targeted rather than blanket measures against people entering the country. Which approach works best?

What has proved effective is the terrorist watch list. Now, it doesn't work all the time, but it is the best thing we've got at the moment. In many cases, biometrics offer an exponential improvement as well. Remember, two of the hijackers were well known by the CIA and should have been placed on the watch list that the State Department kept. They weren't. Even more surprising, the only person fired in connection with 9/11 was Mary Ryan, who was responsible for creating the terrorist watch list at the State Department. I would like to see us get rid of the post-9/11 measures targeted at certain ethnic groups. Landed immigrants from a Muslim country, for instance, get pulled aside for additional screening for hours. It's gratuitously offensive to many people, and it has created an intense anger. Moreover, there's no evidence these measures have achieved anything.

How can we improve conditions at the border?

We need to separate the debates on terrorism and immigration. There are very serious debates to be had about both, but conflating the two does a disservice to both. We need to have solutions to the illegal immigration problem and the terrorism problem, but what's good for stopping terrorism is not good for stopping illegal immigration. They are not the same problem. [Former Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge was one of the first to argue for a single border agency, which got shot down late in 2001 largely on turf grounds. If the White House had come forward with the idea of a single face at the border, Congress likely would have gone along with it. Instead, we got a massive Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration and terrorism prevention and doesn't do either one very well.

We also need to send a different message to the world. We have set up so many hurdles that it's made some people feel humiliated. We don't need to undo these measures, but we need to go out of our way to welcome the people we want in this country. Just treating people with respect at border crossings and customs points can go a long way. The entire visa process, for instance, is funded by the people who want to come here. There's a good case be made that we should appropriate a little bit of money to waive those fees and make the country more appealing. That's a way to offset the very necessary security measures that have to stay in place.