OHIO — Twenty years ago, this month, the federal government changed forever in the way that it protects us from terror attacks. 

So, what do experts say have been the biggest change to our government since 9/11? And what do they say remains the most pressing concern about securing the homeland?

What You Need To Know

  • The 20th anniversary of 9/11 was remembered this month

  • From transportation to the U.S. Treasury Department, 9/11’s impact on the federal government is substantial

  • September 11th expanded the government’s information collection reach

  • Experts also say cyberattacks and online extremism as national concerns

From transportation to the U.S. Treasury Department, 9/11’s impact on the federal government is substantial. Most noticeable is the Department of Homeland Security’s creation from 22 separate agencies in 2002. 

But 9/11 also changed the culture around how government protects the American people.

Former INS Agent John Torres, who was assigned to work at the FBI headquarters, said before 9/11, officials saw counterterrorism as an after-an-attack effort waged in foreign countries.

“And so, it was pretty frustrating.” 

Former CIA Officer Bryan Cunningham said 9/11 forced the government to change quickly. 

“Within hours of when President Bush was sitting in that second-grade classroom, the national security leadership of his team had completely reversed decades of counter-terrorism policy.”

The wider “war on terror” that 9/11 launched impacted government finances to the tune of $6 trillion, counting both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interest payments and future care for veterans.  

  • September 11th forced organizational and spending changes to the government’s Homeland Security approach
  • Agency communication and government surveillance tools are enhanced
  • Experts see cyber threats, online extremism, public complacency as lingering threats

September 11th also expanded the government’s information collection reach.

The Patriot Act allows for a wide range of surveillance on Americans via special warrants. Though parts of the act have now expired, Torres said the act’s long-term legacy is in breaking down walls within and between federal departments.    

“We had an intelligence investigation. Simultaneously, we opened a criminal investigation. And the people that worked each of those could not talk to each other — could not share intelligence, could not share information.”  

So, what about lingering threats on this 20th anniversary?

Torres named cyberattacks as the biggest national concern. 

“We’ve seen major data breaches that continue to happen not only within the U.S. government but with major companies,” he said.  

Cunningham sees online extremism as the challenge. 

“We basically don’t do much of anything to counteract that,” he said.  

Today, Torres is the president of Guidepost Solutions’ Security & Technology Consulting. Cunningham is executive director of UCI Cybersecurity Policy and Research Institute.

Both agree that 20 years without a major attack has a downside. 

Looking ahead, Torres said: “I worry about people becoming complacent and I see it as we get further away (from 9/11).” 

Cunningham has similar concerns: “20 years later we’re retreating back into ourselves. And I’m quite certain we’ll regret it.” 

Sobering thoughts during a solemn time of remembrance.