Yesterday in our nation’s chief target, New York City, I picked up this incisive assessment by former Navy Secretary John Lehman in the New York Post:
PART of the reason we suffered such a horrific attack is that we were not prepared.
We were not prepared intellectually. Those of us in the national-security field still carried the baggage of the Cold War. When we thought of terrorism, we thought only of state-sponsored terrorism, which is why the immediate reaction of many in our government agencies after 9/11 was: Which state did it? Saddam, it must have been Saddam.
We had failed to grasp, for a variety of reasons, the new phenomenon that had emerged in the world. This was not state-sponsored terrorism. This was religious war. This was the emergence of a transnational enemy driven by religious fervor and fanaticism. Our enemy is not terrorism. Our enemy is violent, Islamic fundamentalism.
None of our government institutions was set up with receptors, or even vocabulary, to deal with this. So we left ourselves completely vulnerable to a concerted attack.
Where are we today? I’d like to say we have fixed these problems, but we haven’t. We have not diminished in any way the fervor and ideology of our enemy. We are fighting them in many areas of the world, and I must say with much better awareness of the issues and their nature. We’re fighting with better tools.
But I cannot say we are now safe from the kind of attack we saw on 9/11. I think we are much safer than we were on 9/11: The ability of our enemies to launch a concerted, sophisticated attack is much less than it was then. Still, we’re totally vulnerable to the kinds of attacks we’ve seen in Madrid, for instance.
We face a very sophisticated and intelligent enemy who has been trained, in many cases, in our universities and gone to school on our methods, learned from their mistakes, and continued to use the very nature of our free society and its aversion to intrusion in privacy and discrimination to their benefit.
For example, today it is still a prohibited offense for an airline to have two people of the same ethnic background interviewed at one time, because that is discrimination. Our ability to carry out covert operations abroad is only marginally better than it was at the time of 9/11.
It’s very important that people understand the complexity of this threat. We have had to institute new approaches to protecting our civil liberties – the way we authorize surveillance, the way we conduct our immigration and naturalization policies, and the way we issue passports. That’s only the beginning.
The beginning of wisdom is to recognize the problem, to recognize that for every jihadist we kill or capture – as we carry out an aggressive and positive policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere – another 50 are being trained in schools and mosques around the world.
This problem goes back a long way. We have been asleep. Presidents in four administrations put their arms around Saudi ambassadors, ignored the Wahhabi jihadism, and said these are our eternal friends.
We have seen throughout the last 20 years a kind of head-in-the-sand approach to national security in the Pentagon. We paid no attention to the real nature of this emerging threat, even though there were warning signs.
Many will recall with pain what we went through in the Reagan administration in 1983, when the Marine barracks were bombed in Beirut – 241 Marines and Navy corpsmen were killed. We immediately got an intercept from NSA [National Security Agency], a total smoking gun from the foreign ministry of Iran, ordering the murder of our Marines. Nothing was done to retaliate. Instead, we did exactly what the terrorists wanted us to do, which was to withdraw.
Osama bin Laden has cited this as one of his dawning moments. The vaunted United States is a paper tiger; Americans are afraid of casualties; they run like cowards when attacked; and they don’t even bother to take their dead with them.
We fueled and made these people aware of the tremendous effectiveness of terrorism as a tool of jihad. They chased us out of one place after another, because we would not retaliate.
The secretary of Defense at the time has said he never received those intercepts. That’s an example of one of the huge problems our commission has uncovered. We have allowed the intelligence community to evolve into a bureaucratic archipelago of baronies in the Defense Department, the CIA, and 95 other different intelligence units in our government. None of them talked to one another in the same computerized system. There was no systemic sharing.
We had watch lists with 65,000 terrorists’ names on them, created by a very sophisticated system in the State Department called Tip-Off. That existed before 9/11, but nobody in the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] bothered to look at it. The FAA had 12 names on its no-fly list.
The State Department had a guy on its list named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was already under indictment for his role in planning the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. State issued him a visa.
Two big lessons glare out from what our investigations have discovered so far. Number one: In our government bureaucracy today, there is no accountability.
Since 9/11 – the greatest failure of American defenses in the history of our country, at least since the burning of Washington in 1814 – only one person has been fired. He is a hero, in my judgment: [retired Vice] Adm. John Poindexter.
He got fired because of an excessive zeal to catch these bastards. But he was the only one fired. Not any of the 19 officers lost their jobs at Immigration for allowing the 19 terrorists – nine who presented grossly falsified passports – to enter the country.
Customs officer Jose Melendez-Perez stopped the 20th terrorist, who was supposed to be on Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Probably because of the shorthanded muscle on that team, the passengers were able to overcome the terrorists.
Melendez-Perez did this at great personal risk, because his colleagues and his supervisors told him, “You can’t do this. This guy is an Arab ethnic. You’re racially profiling. You’re going to get in real trouble, because it’s against Department of Transportation policy to racially profile.”
He said, “I don’t care. This guy’s a bad guy. I can see it in his eyes.”
As he sent this guy back out of the United States, the guy turned around to him and said, “I’ll be back.” You know, he is back. He’s in Guantanamo. We captured him in Afghanistan.
Do you think Melendez-Perez got a promotion? Do you think he got any recognition? Do you think he is doing any better than the 19 of his time-serving, unaccountable colleagues? Don’t think any bit of it. We have no accountability – but we’re going to restore it.