Looking back, it appears that terrorists won a significant psychological victory after 9/11. Their mass murder campaign generated an irrational, all-consuming fear. The resulting panic led to the erosion of key freedoms and central democratic values in many countries. An intelligence expert summarizes the outcome:
“The events of that September morning were simply appalling, but the resulting abandonment of long-held civil rights and the ready acceptance by the individual and the news media of draconian new security and surveillance measures, many of which have little or no value in fighting international terrorism, pose a far worse threat; the undermining of democracy and the loss of freedom itself. …
“The true cost of the al Qaeda outrage of 9-11 may be far more wide-ranging and damaging to democracy than fighting a war against terrorism, and the world could well be living with the effects long after Osama bin Laden has been consigned to history.” (Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, Richard M. Bennett, London: Virgin Books, 2002, p. 247.)
The spies haven’t changed their ways, so it’s likely that the long series of intelligence disasters will continue. (Major intelligence failures include Pearl Harbor; 9/11 and the 1993 World Trade Center attack; the fabricated Iraqi WMD data and the Saddam Hussein/al Qaeda terror-connection fiasco that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the Boston Marathon bombings; the Fort Hood massacre, the 2015 Paris attacks, etc.)
Part of the difficulty involves the relative effectiveness of signals intelligence versus human intelligence gathering.
SIGINT and HUMINT
Electronic communications are intercepted and then analyzed to produce “SIGINT” (signals intelligence). In a much more costly and involved process, intelligence organizations also gather “HUMINT.” This so-called “human intelligence” comes from turncoats who actually work inside foreign governments or enemy organizations. As you can imagine, it’s exceedingly difficult to.recruit spies who can penetrating terrorist organizations.
When the Cold War ended, budget cuts had substantial impacts on Western HUMINT programs. The cuts undermined efforts to get inside terrorist organizations, and some believed electronic eavesdropping could take up the slack. It’s a sad record: The available reports indicate that SIGINT intercepts have never exposed a terror plot or halted an attack.
(Electronic tracking has helped in the capture and elimination of terrorist suspects. However, critics claim the assassination programs rely on inadequate targeting and have killed hundreds of innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place when drone missiles exploded.)
(Continue reading about the mass surveillance menace at this link.)