Connecting the Dots to Bin Laden

05/04/2011 12:21 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

The stunning stories out of Abbottabad and beyond paint one very clear picture. After Osama Bin Laden took such painful advantage of our failure to connect the dots before September 11, he himself fell victim to all we've learned since then to ensure the dots are connected. We've learned a lot in the last decade.

The lessons start with the Joint Special Operations Command, vastly enhanced in recent years. They continue with Navy Seal Team Six and the shadow world in which the CIA and the nation's other intelligence services tracked down Bin Laden's lair. Every new nugget of information that's dribbled out about Sunday's raid reinforces the conclusion about just how far we've come since Bin Laden's despicably crafty attack.

There's a string of past assaults, from "Operation Eagle Claw," the 1980 failed rescue attempt of American hostages in Tehran, to the bloody 1993 Mogadishu raid depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down." We've clearly learned how to do a secret helicopter assault, even if one of the choppers fails. And we've learned to weave together our intelligence and military assets far better than was the case before September 11.

Those lessons stretch much further. Our improved ability to connect the dots led to authorities pulling Faisal Shahzad off an aircraft soon after his attempt to detonate explosives in Times Square. He's now spending life in prison. And it's paying extra dividends in other areas, too. Katrina was a failed test of the lessons that September 11 taught, but we've finally learned them. The government's response to the horrific tornado-swarm across the Deep South testifies to the fact that we can learn.

The rough road in learning those lessons has led to some unexpected places. Within the government, the feds are much quicker to pull the trigger, not only in taking out terrorists but in stepping in when disasters strike. From September 11 to Katrina, there's the heightened awareness that big problems can quickly swamp local governments, and no federal official wants to be caught flatfooted again. Katrina, not the "Mission Accomplished" banner, was the event from which George W. Bush never politically recovered.

Key intelligence in tracking down Bin Laden appears to have come from "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- torture. Our nation's founders debated on where to set the balance between limiting our privacy in the name of national security and strong efforts to preserve individual liberty, and that will will continue forever. But, for better or worse, part of Bin Laden's legacy is nudging that balance toward limits on privacy. We can joke about Transportation Security Administration officials touching our junk and complain about screeners frisking six-year-olds, but that needle has been moved forever.

Not all the dots have been connected. The Department of Homeland Security continues to lumber along, and parts of the intelligence community are continuing to resist the pressure to work more cooperatively connecting their dots. We're also facing a daunting new array of threats, from cybercrime to public health threats, that we never saw on September 11. We still have a long way to go, and we'll need all these new capabilities in the months ahead as bin Laden's followers try to fill his shoes.

But, all in all, it's hard not to look back at the last decade and see the fact that the very gaps that Bin Laden exploited to launch his horrific attacks--the dots that were unconnected -- became connected in ways that led to his death. There's profound irony, and a measure of justice, in that.

Donald F. Kettl is dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy