How Safe Are We?

Homeland Security Since 9/11


By Janet Napolitano

With Karen Breslau

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Former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano offers an insightful analysis of American security at home and a prescription for the future.

Created in the wake of the greatest tragedy to occur on U.S. soil, the Department of Homeland Security was handed a sweeping mandate: make America safer. It would encompass intelligence and law enforcement agencies, oversee natural disasters, commercial aviation, border security and ICE, cybersecurity, and terrorism, among others. From 2009-2013, Janet Napolitano ran DHS and oversaw 22 federal agencies with 230,000 employees.

In How Safe Are We?, Napolitano pulls no punches, reckoning with the critics who call it Frankenstein’s Monster of government run amok, and taking a hard look at the challenges we’ll be facing in the future. But ultimately, she argues that the huge, multifaceted department is vital to our nation’s security. An agency that’s part terrorism prevention, part intelligence agency, part law enforcement, public safety, disaster recovery make for an odd combination the protocol-driven, tradition-bound Washington D.C. culture. But, she says, it has made us more safe, secure, and resilient.

Napolitano not only answers the titular question, but grapples with how these security efforts have changed our country and society. Where are the failures that leave us vulnerable and what has our 1 trillion dollar investment yielded over the last 15 years? And why haven’t we had another massive terrorist attack in the U.S. since September 11th, 2001? In our current political climate, where Donald Trump has politicized nearly every aspect of the department, Napolitano’s clarifying, bold vision is needed now more than ever.



Like most Americans of a certain age, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when our country was attacked on the morning of September 11, 2001. It was shortly before 7:00 a.m. in Phoenix, Arizona, and I was home getting ready for work when I heard on NPR that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. The cause was being described as a possible air traffic control problem. A few minutes later, as I was drying my hair, I heard the announcement that stopped me cold—that the second tower had been hit. I knew then, along with the rest of America, that this wasn’t an accident.

I was the attorney general of Arizona at that time, and the moment I heard that the second tower had been hit, I dropped my hair dryer and went into crisis mode. I called my chief of staff to activate our team and run through our plan should there be an attack on Arizona. A few minutes later, I got a call from Governor Jane Dee Hull, asking whether she had the legal authority to scramble National Guard jets to protect the state’s Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the largest power plant in the nation. I took a beat. It’s in my nature to plan for everything, to prepare for every eventuality, but there was no plan for this. I had to make a call. I told the governor that without authorization from the Pentagon, she could not activate the Guard, since it was both a federal and a state asset. By this point, we’d learned that the Pentagon had also been hit by a commercial airliner and was in flames. There would be no answer from Washington that day.

As a high-level state government official, the near silence from the federal government was eerie. In the chaotic first hours after the attacks, President George W. Bush was aboard Air Force One, flanked by F-16s, as he was flown from one military base to another, unable to communicate reliably with his cabinet, leaders of Congress, or the American people. With the president out of the public eye for the moment, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani emerged for many as the face and voice of the government response on that first day and the days that followed. In that task, he performed admirably.

Everyone was scrambling to understand what was happening, including cabinet secretaries, governors, mayors, police chiefs, first responders, the media, and, of course, the American public. People were terrified, wondering what could happen next and where to get reliable and actionable information. It wasn’t until I got home late that night and watched people jumping from the burning towers on television that the impact of the day hit me. As I numbly watched endless video loops of office workers plunging to the ground to avoid being consumed by flames, I could only think about what horrors they must have been faced with to make the decision to jump. Those images remain seared in my memory to this day, as they do for many of us.

We will soon observe the twentieth anniversary of the Tuesday that transformed our nation so profoundly that it is known most commonly by its date: 9/11 (like December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, or November 22, 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy). The 9/11 attacks changed the way we fly, protect our borders, investigate crime, and gather government information. They changed the way we organize the federal government itself, the economy, and even the way we watch the news on television. (The nonstop news ticker screen crawl was born to handle the torrent of information that day.) The 9/11 attacks shook the American psyche too, in ways that continue to reverberate. It had been nearly sixty years since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and for the first time in the lives of most Americans, we had to struggle with the realization that we were no longer safe from attack by a foreign entity within the borders of the United States. This altered our expectations of what our government can and cannot do for us. It affected our politics; it challenged our conception of ourselves as the world’s most open society.

It’s been nearly two decades since 9/11, and I believe it’s time to take stock of those changes, to identify which policies that were put in place back then still work and which ones need to be fixed. In those early days after the attacks, decisions were made and laws were passed that were the result of fear, lack of information, and often a sincere desire to ensure that kind of attack would never happen again. It’s time to look at those decisions in light of the country we are today and to address the new threats that have arisen in the nearly two decades since the attacks.

Think of this book as an American report card. What has worked and what has not? What are the social, political, and economic costs of that progress? Where are our biggest vulnerabilities today, and how do we repair them? What are the risks we must accept if we are to remain a free and open society? What should government do for us, and what must each of us do for ourselves and our neighbors in the event of emergency? Most importantly, are we safer and more resilient today than we were on September 11, 2001?

One of the biggest changes resulting from 9/11 was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in early 2003. The job of the department is broad: to protect the nation’s air, land, and sea borders and to manage our immigration system and oversee the federal government’s resources for responding to disasters of all types. Unlike the Department of Defense, which was created after World War II, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is primarily a civilian agency. It has domestic law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering functions, in addition to its global responsibilities. And it is enormous. DHS is the third-largest agency in the federal government, behind the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, with 240,000 employees.

I was the third secretary of homeland security, after Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, and the first to be appointed by President Barack Obama. I came to the cabinet in 2009, leaving as governor of Arizona during my second term and following my career in law enforcement, including stints as Arizona’s attorney general and as US Attorney for the District of Arizona. I left the administration late in 2013 to become president of the University of California, proud of the considerable progress we’d made at DHS in a relatively short time to improve border security, transportation security, and the government’s abilities to respond to emergencies of all types.

The 9/11 attacks were as close to a decapitating attack on the United States government as we have seen, and they laid bare the shortcomings of our government to protect us in the age of terror. Over the past fifteen years, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, we have come a long way to ensure that the government cannot be immobilized again. The Department of Homeland Security has developed playbooks, constantly updated, for nearly every catastrophe and scenario imaginable. Working with the Departments of Defense and Justice, the intelligence agencies, the Congress, our allies, and thousands of local governments, law-enforcement partners, and first responders, we have gotten much better at identifying and guarding against many threats as they emerge. We are more strategic and more aggressive as a result of these efforts and have made Americans safer, more prepared, and more resilient in the face of many disasters than they were before 9/11.

We did a lot, both seen and unseen, to increase airport security while giving millions of qualified US travelers TSA Precheck status, expediting their passage through our airports. I must admit, though, that I am frustrated we did not make enough progress during the Obama administration on improving the capabilities of the screening process so that people can leave their shoes on and carry liquids on their flights easily. Faced with limited resources, technological limitations, and competing security priorities, we had to focus first on safety, even when that meant continued inconvenience for the traveling public.

We did make significant advances in other aspects of border security. Based on the science of risk analysis, we designed effective systems to screen and stop dangerous passengers, vehicles, vessels, and cargo from entering the United States. We improved intelligence sharing, both within the US government and among our allies, to detect threats to the United States farther from our borders and to intercept those who would do harm before they make it to US soil, airspace, or maritime borders. We pushed illegal crossings along our border with Mexico to a forty-year low and improved border security with advanced technology to support our expanded force of US Border Patrol agents.

We remade the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into one of the most efficient and effective agencies of the federal government. I can say this confidently because it was put to the test in national and global emergencies, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, delivering US aid to Haiti following its devastation by an earthquake in 2010, and Hurricane Sandy along the East Coast in 2012, among many other extreme weather events.

We integrated two dozen component agencies, thrown together amid the trauma following 9/11 into a single, integrated Department of Homeland Security with a shared mission to defend the American homeland and help the American people become more resilient.

Yet we still face enormous threats. They are multiplying, more diffuse and more virulent than ever, and our efforts to manage these new dangers reveal mixed results. The federal government has not kept up with the pace and sophistication of cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure—indeed, against our democracy itself—led by such adversaries as Russia, North Korea, and our great power rival, China, as well as those by nonstate actors, whose motives are sometimes less clear. The threats from terrorism have evolved as well since 9/11—from centralized, stateless organizations, such as al-Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, to decentralized, leaderless terror networks that inspire adherents all over the world on the internet and exhort them to strike in place. We see the rise of right-wing violence as well and of mass casualty events, including shootings in schools and other public venues, that appear prompted by no political ideology at all. The surge in natural disasters linked to climate change threatens more Americans than all other causes rolled together.

Americans in general are straight-talking, fact-based problem solvers. So let’s embrace our nature. Let’s face these facts, talk openly about them, and come up with solutions. One of the most important things we all must understand better are the ways in which technology has changed and is changing the threat landscape since September 11, 2001. On that day, there were no smartphones, no Facebook, no Twitter, and no apps. Google was only three years old. Texting was possible but was such a pain on a flip phone that most people didn’t bother.

Osama bin Laden was adept at the technology of his day, recording threats on videotape cassettes that were smuggled from his hideout in the caves between Afghanistan and Pakistan by couriers and then mailed or delivered to Arab-language satellite networks. Intelligence analysts pored over the striations in the cave wall behind bin Laden, the vegetation in the background, or the label on his plastic water bottle, anything that could help to pinpoint the location and time of the recording. American television anchors explained that the tapes were authenticated, frowning their disapproval and playing short clips with subtitles while explaining that the portions selected for airtime were deemed not to pose a danger to the public.

Today, bin Laden is long dead, killed by a US Navy SEAL team in 2011. His surviving lieutenants are long in the tooth. Al-Qaeda has metastasized and rebranded itself into ISIS, now dispersed in locations throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Its tactics against civilians are even more savage than those used on 9/11. The rise of social media networks and dark web browsers allow lone wolves to find with relative ease the inspiration and DIY tools to commit mass murder without crossing an international border. Traditional surveillance and law-enforcement tools are stretched to intercept these plots in time.

As of this writing, we are still struggling to comprehend the ways in which Russia used technology to compromise our 2016 presidential election and seeking stronger methods to deter future intrusions into our electoral systems. If election tampering by a foreign power isn’t a threat to the homeland, I don’t know what is. It remains to be seen how deceptive ads on Facebook and other social media platforms, the infiltration of individual state voting systems, and the hacking of email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton and her aides influenced the election—or whether these factors did or did not change the outcome. Official investigations into what happened in 2016 are backward-looking and mired in partisan battles. We are still struggling with the most consequential challenge: how to prevent it from happening again. Technology evolves faster all the time, and the US government, along with the state governments that manage elections, scramble to keep pace. We need clarity about who leads the federal government response to cyberattacks and what role the private sector should play. We need to better coordinate our defenses going forward—and present a united front to any adversary who threatens the infrastructure of American democracy.

Some vulnerabilities are more perceived than real, yet these are no less vexing to the American people. In this category, I include the persistent political hysteria over the security of the US border with Mexico. Most Americans have a fragile understanding of this vast region of the country, and this makes it ripe for demagoguery. In 2018, we saw the appalling spectacle of migrant children being separated from their parents after they were detained for crossing illegally into the United States, under a misguided “zero tolerance” policy. Of course our country needs secure borders, but that’s where the demagoguery starts. Americans are told they have to choose between an “open” border, over which undocumented migrants pour “by the millions” and “infest” the country, or a “big beautiful” wall. This is a false choice. The most heavily trafficked land border in the world cannot be sealed like a Ziploc bag. We can have a secure border and the rule of law, as reasonable Democrats and Republicans agree. It is not beyond us to come up with policies that facilitate the legal flows of people and commerce vital to our economy and at the same time deter illegal traffic using smart technology and strategic law enforcement.

Despite tremendous advances in reducing illegal flows of people and contraband over the southern border during the Obama administration, I don’t think we communicated as effectively as we could have with the American people about our progress. We could not break through with the facts about the connection between that difficult mission of securing the border and the need for comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken system. If your boat is leaking, you do not choose between bailing water and repairing the hole. You do one and then the other. Immigration reform means three things: first, continuing to secure the southern border in a way consistent with our laws and values and the best technology; second, designing a visa system that is fair and consistent with dynamic US labor needs and international humanitarian obligations; and third, building a functional immigration system that puts the eleven million undocumented people in the United States on a path to legal status. Only if we do all three will we prevent such a backlog from developing again.

Nearly twenty years after 9/11, we are witnessing homeland security malpractice: an administration that aggressively refuses to recognize threats that are real and certain, coupled with an equally aggressive effort to divert public attention and government resources toward issues that are less lethal, but more potent politically. A migrant caravan from Central America is easier to see on television than is climate change, or an adversary’s digital incursions into our elections and other critical infrastructure, but that doesn’t make it a greater danger to our way of life. None of this lessens the terror Americans inflict on other Americans in our public spaces through mass gun violence.

In our fractious political and social climate today, it is worth thinking back to the aftermath of 9/11 in another way. I don’t miss the emotional pain or the fear of that time. What I do miss is our sense of togetherness—the belief that we were bound by ideals and a commitment to justice to hold each other up through the darkness, no matter our politics, our religion, or our ethnic origins. The United States had taken a terrible blow, but the fabric of our society was strong. Recall the members of Congress singing the national anthem on the steps of the Capitol, people holding candles on their front porches that night and dropping off baked goods at their local fire stations, the lines at blood banks around the country from people desperate to give something to save a life—even though the emergency rooms in Manhattan were nearly empty because so few of the victims of the attacks even survived. I remember the crowds lining the West Side Highway, cheering the ironworkers who had driven to New York City from across the country to untangle the twisted remnants of the Twin Towers, in case there was a life to be saved or remains to recover with dignity. The government didn’t ask them to come. They loaded their tools, got in their trucks, and drove.

We were perhaps never more American than we were on that day and in the days and months that followed. Young and not-so-young Americans flocked to military service, the foreign service, the intelligence services, and to other forms of public service. We didn’t talk about the “deep state”; we talked about our deep reverence for our state, our nation, and our place in the world. And the United States was not alone; the community of nations joined with us in our grief and horror. For the first time since its founding in 1949, NATO invoked Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defense clause, declaring an attack on one is an attack on all. The French daily Le Monde headline “Nous sommes tous américains” (We are all Americans) resonated throughout the world. Parisians stood in front of Notre Dame singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” In Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth II authorized the US national anthem to be played during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and traffic came to a halt. In Germany, two hundred thousand people marched through the streets of Berlin in solidarity. Even adversaries responded. In Iran, thousands stood for a moment of silence before a soccer match. North Korea sent condolences.

Everything changed on 9/11, and some of the good things that came out of that terrible time have since faded along with the bad. We can and we must restore our sense of common purpose. In this book, I’ll take you through my time at the DHS and what I experienced more broadly during decades of public service. If you are looking for dirt, buy a book on gardening. At a time when it is fashionable to malign the motives and qualifications of people who choose to work in government, it is worth reminding ourselves that our democracy depends on citizens willing to lend their talents and ideas, taking on huge responsibilities, and not for a giant paycheck. It is my hope that my story might inspire more good people to find that common purpose once again and step up to serve.




What Have I Done?

The dolly was my first clue. From my office on the ninth floor of the Arizona State Capitol, I watched as an aide wheeled it toward me, piled high with bulging white binders in precarious stacks. It was mid-December, and in only a few weeks, I would trade the job I loved as governor of Arizona to become US secretary of homeland security, only the third in our nation’s history. My predecessor, Michael Chertoff, wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to be prepared for running the newest, most sprawling, and, as yet, least understood agency of the federal government. These transition binders contained playbooks, memos, and intelligence, all aimed at helping me deal with everything in the Homeland Security portfolio, from terrorists to tornadoes, plagues and pandemics, planes, trains, and automobiles, to immigration and border security, cyberweapons, an attack on the power grid or water system, and biological and chemical warfare and nuclear dirty bombs.

Michael Chertoff had been President George W. Bush’s secretary of homeland security, a capable and thoughtful federal prosecutor and judge by training, and he did everything he could to ensure a smooth transition. Each of the many binders opened with a memorandum describing the current state of a particular issue, the initiatives underway, the related budget framework, the number of employees working on it, pending decisions that would carry into President Obama’s term, and a timeline for decisions that had to be made. The clocks on many of these decisions were already ticking, which required a high-speed baton pass from the Bush administration to President Obama’s. I’m the kind of person who likes organized timelines and clear goals, and especially since I was still wrapping up my responsibilities as governor, I felt a deep sense of urgency. People’s lives were at stake with most of these decisions. These early versions were classified at a lower level, so I was working from incomplete information at first. But when my security clearance was elevated from the level held by governors to the status of cabinet secretary on Inauguration Day, Chertoff’s team added more material, and I got the full picture.

The sheer size and complexity of my new portfolio was mind-blowing. My head was swimming as I read about the dozens of programs within the TSA alone and the intricacies of air travel safety. Sitting atop the mountain of briefing documents was a half-inch-thick single-spaced glossary of government acronyms. Who knew that NSTAC stood for National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee? Or that CAPPS meant Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System? Or that this almost comically bureaucratic document would prove indispensable? That cheat sheet would be a constant companion during the eventful years that followed, as I acclimated to the players and rituals of Washington. As the aide who delivered the dolly of binders left my office on that December day and the door of my office clicked shut, I looked around and thought, “What have I done?”

A few weeks later, on a freezing but joyous Tuesday, I sat with my fellow cabinet nominees on the west front portico of the US Capitol moments before the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As a US Marine Corps band serenaded the assembled dignitaries, I looked at the crowd below. For as far as I could see, revelers packed the National Mall in a sea of brightly colored hats and parkas that stretched all the way to the Washington Monument. The atmosphere was both majestic and electric, but already I had a sense of foreboding.

I had learned earlier that day that Chertoff had received intelligence about a possible plot to disrupt the celebration and cause mass casualties. He and his team were monitoring events from a nearby Secret Service command center to make sure none of the threats came to pass. Chertoff and I had agreed that we would wait a day to transition power within the DHS. After being confirmed by the Senate, my swearing in was delayed so that we did not compound our vulnerability with an ill-timed changing of the guard during an active threat stream. As I scanned the hundreds of thousands of cheering people packed in front of the Capitol, I knew that in less than twenty-four hours, I would be the one bearing primary responsibility for their safety. And for the second of what would become many times during the early days of my tenure, the magnitude of my new duties hit me. I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in part to remedy the lamentable lack of communication and the failure of dozens of government agencies to connect the dots that were so obvious in hindsight in the years prior to the 9/11 attacks—and above all, to protect the public from future disaster. Americans were still reeling from the human loss, from their shattered sense of safety, and from the trauma of witnessing mass murder on television, when President Bush and Congress convened the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States in November 2002. Comprised of a bipartisan group of ten of the country’s most distinguished and astute leaders, including current and former government officials and leading attorneys and strategists, the commission was tasked with investigating the “facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks”—in nongovernment speak: just what the hell went wrong, who let it happen, and how to prevent it from happening again.

It was critical to identify the fatal mistakes that had become evident during the first year of the investigation and to restore confidence in government’s ability to protect the public. The work of repairing the scarred American psyche was also immense. The department was given an ominous-sounding name—Department of Homeland Security—a throwback that felt like it was out of a World War II newsreel.

President-elect Obama asked me to serve as secretary of homeland security after he won the 2008 election. I was an early supporter and helped Obama mount a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to win the late John McCain’s home state of Arizona, and I campaigned for him in other states as well. With my background in law enforcement and my experience as a border-state governor, the president-elect thought I was a good fit for DHS, so I agreed to take the job of running this new and sprawling department that everyone warned me was unmanageable, if not downright impossible to run. To me, public service means exactly that: you serve where you are needed. And when the president asks you to serve, you serve. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security was in its adolescence, and like a teenager, it was gangly and fast growing, with some serious coordination, identity, and communication issues. I saw the challenges, but I also saw the opportunity to make more of an impact than I might have at one of the longer-established agencies.


  • "A measured, thoughtful analysis... A clear-eyed, rational examination of a government office that plays a key and often misunderstood role in the lives of all Americans."—KirkusReviews
  • "Janet Napolitano has distilled a lifetime of service in How Safe Are We?. Her thinking is clear and her vision for the future is expansive. The message of this book could not be more timely."—George Stephanopoulos
  • "A smart, strategic, and impactful book on the security of America. The compelling narrative weaves together Janet's incredible life experience with her insightful commentary on some of the biggest issues we face today-from cybersecurity to immigration, to natural disasters. And this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to make sense of which threats are real and which are dangerous political theater."—Kathleen Sebelius, Former Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • "Janet Napolitano provides a knowledgeable report card on what works well in securing our nation and what still needs improvement. Her fact-based and practical observations should be welcomed by those looking for clear assessments of how safe we really are."—Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, 2005-2009
  • "Not only is Napolitano's account of her time as head of DHS funny and blunt, her smart take on creating 'a safe, secure and resilient nation' is steeped in vast experience and rich insider detail. This terrific book should be required reading for everyone who works in - or cares about - keeping our homeland secure."—Jennifer Granholm, former Governor of Michigan
  • "This succinct and insightful book should be widely read-whether by the expert practitioner or average citizen. It is an enlightening report card on the whole range of national challenges which come under the broad rubric of homeland security, including critiques of the current administration's approach. Janet Napolitano knows what she's talking about; unlike so many pontificators on this subject today, she's lived the issue. She is the consummate public servant and she has contributed to her distinguished record of accomplishment with this superb volume."—James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence
  • "A compelling account of Homeland Security in the 21st Century-where we were, where we are, and where we need to go. Napolitano's emphasis on cyber and natural disasters highlight threats that are still not being adequately addressed at the national level. This book offers common sense approaches to these threats and others that continue to rapidly evolve."—William Bratton, former New York City Police Commissioner and former Chief of the LAPD

  • "This valuable work should appeal to readers with cool heads about national security, who will appreciate Napolitano's suggestion to evaluate risk based on data rather than rhetoric."

    Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Mar 26, 2019
Page Count
240 pages

Janet Napolitano

About the Author

Janet Napolitano is a distinguished public servant with a record of leading large, complex organizations at the federal and state levels. She served as secretary of Homeland Security from 2009-2013. Before that, she was the governor of Arizona, previously serving as attorney general of Arizona and before that as US attorney for the District of Arizona. She was the first woman to chair the National Governors Association, and was named one of the nation’s top five governors by Time magazine. Since 2013, she has served as the president of the University of California.

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