ON July 22, the 9/11 Commission’s members marked the 10th anniversary of their profound report on the successful 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States with a new and supplementary review of a decade of successes and failures. The commissioners also came out with a new set of recommendations to deal with the changed face of terrorist threats.
As we were in 2004, the 10 members of the commission — five Democrats and five Republicans — were unanimous.
In summary, our government’s response to the threat of terrorist attacks in this country has improved dramatically, and the country is more safe than it was a decade ago. Our two major failures — Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon — while tragic, are in no way comparable to the original 9/11.
At the same time, al-Qaida-like attacks in the Middle East have grown greatly in scope and lethality. Wide areas in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Iran and Sudan have become safe territory for terrorist organizations and their training camps.
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In the original 9/11 Commission Report, we wrote: If “Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home.” Iraq is now on the verge of becoming a failed state.
A national defense council recently appointed by Congress concluded that “the threat of Islamic terrorism is higher today than it was on Sept. 11, 2001.”
The self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria has broken with core al-Qaida on the grounds that al-Qaida is too soft. Its self-appointed caliph has explicitly threatened attacks on the United States. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. paid no attention to a similar threat from Osama bin Laden and paid a high price for that inattention.
In short, the “generational struggle against terrorism” described in the 9/11 Commission Report 10 years ago is far from over. In fact, it is entering a new and dangerous phase, and America cannot afford to let down its guard.
Non-Syrian fighters in Syria, including more than 100 American citizens, will soon return from that country, posing a grave threat to the U.S. homeland and to Western Europe.
Cyber threats to both the U.S. economy and national security are far greater than America’s ability to fight them. One of our commission witnesses reported that the ongoing theft of U.S. intellectual property is “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”
Ten years ago, Congress dramatically improved the organization of our national intelligence bodies, accepting the 9/11 Commission’s central recommendation, by creating a unitary director of national intelligence.
But Congress refused to reform its own oversight structure. Where the Department of Homeland Security then reported to 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress, it now reports to 92. The commission recommended a single-digit number.
But perhaps the greatest threat to U.S. security is America’s waning sense of urgency and the onset of counterterrorism fatigue. Our very success in preventing another major attack has led to a loss of focus on existing and new threats. Due to that success, national leaders themselves have lost focus and rarely seek to keep us alert.
In the face of this history and these facts, the 9/11 Commission has authored a small number of new recommendations.
• National security leaders must communicate to the public — in specific terms — what the threat is, how it is evolving, what measures are being taken to address it, why these measures are necessary and what specific protections are in place to ensure civil liberties.
• Congress should oversee and legislate for the Department of Homeland Security through one primary authorizing committee in each chamber. The Department of Homeland Security should receive the same streamlined oversight as the Department of Defense has had for years.
• The director of national intelligence should coordinate the work of the various intelligence agencies, advance interagency intelligence sharing and provide centralized budget planning, rather than replicating the work of those agencies.
• The director’s efforts should be centered on fostering counterterrorism information sharing between the many agencies with intelligence functions so that appropriate action could be taken to counter threats before they lead to action.
• Congress should fund the entire National Intelligence Program through a single appropriations bill.
• The Obama administration should explain to the nation the severity of the cyber threat to U.S. society and the stakes involved for the future. Congress should pass cybersecurity legislation to enable private companies to cooperate freely with the government to counter cyber threats. And Congress should seriously consider granting private companies legal authority to take direct action in response to attacks on their networks. Foreign cyberattacks against U.S. security should be considered serious violations of international norms and dealt with accordingly.
• And, finally, far too many of the records on which the original 9/11 Commission report was based remain classified. The Obama administration should act expeditiously to make all remaining 9/11 Commission records available to the public.
The administrations of Obama and George W. Bush have done an admirable job in preventing another 9/11-like attack, and the nation is now safer as a result. But the threat is now different, evolving and equally dangerous. Leaders in the presidential administration and Congress need to work together successfully to meet this threat with the kind of bipartisan cooperation that the 9/11 Commission developed a decade ago.
Slade Gorton, former U.S. senator for Washington state, served on the 9/11 Commission.