In the immediate, before-it-sinks-in aftermath of the September 11 attack, one of the first catch-phrases to take hold–and be widely deployed by TV commentators, politicians and citizen e-mailers–was, "this changes everything." As the media cliché goes, time will tell how much of American life will be altered by the assault. Clearly, politics as we know it will not be the same in the weeks and months, and perhaps years, ahead. As Tim Russert observed, while hellish dust clouds billowed, "Suddenly the Social Security lockbox seems so trivial."
The hideous event will naturally dominate the national conversation. There will be little media space for other matters. The budget battle, the disappeared surplus, the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform, patients' bill of rights, trade tussles, global warming–Washington's agenda will be overwhelmed by the attack, to the President's distinct advantage. And the terms of political discussion will dramatically shift–again, mostly to George W. Bush's advantage. Two hours after the first explosion, Representative Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania, declared, "The number-one responsibility" of the government is not education or healthcare but the "security of the American people." And national security hawks quickly began to shape the debate to come. The issue for them is not what causes such unimaginable actions. On Day One did you hear anyone–in an attempt to understand, not justify, the horror–ask, Why would someone want to commit this evil act? Or note that in this globalized age, US policy–its actions and inactions overseas (justified or not)–can easily lead to consequences at home? No, the national security cadre, out in force, mainly raised questions of how best to bolster the military and intelligence establishment.
Before rescue efforts were up and running, the friends of that establishment were mounting an offensive. Former Secretary of State James Baker blamed the Church Committee, the Senate panel that investigated CIA misdeeds in the 1970s, for what happened: "We went on a real witch hunt with our CIA…the Church Committee. We unilaterally disarmed in terms of intelligence." Newt Gingrich assailed rules on intelligence gathering that limit CIA interaction with known terrorists, and he asserted that the intelligence budget (about $30 billion) was "too small." Others decried the prohibition on government-sponsored assassination. Dan Quayle urged that the President be granted "extraordinary powers internationally and domestically" to deal with terrorists. (Asked what he had in mind, Quayle replied, "I'm not going to get too specific.") John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Bob Graham–the last of whom chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee–griped that the United States has concentrated too much on technical intelligence (spy satellites and high-tech eavesdropping) and has been negligent in the ways of "human intelligence"–humint, in the parlance of spies. More money would have to be poured into humint, they and others remarked. Hatch also complained that "we've allowed our military to deteriorate" and that the "Russians have a better tactical fighter than we do." Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger used the moment to claim that "the defense budget is woefully underdone."