On this, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, much will be written and said about the nation’s lack of preparedness for such attacks and the failure of foresight on behalf of our national leadership. “Why weren’t we warned,” will still be the perennial question.
The answer is: We were warned.
The United States Commission on National Security for the 21st Century wrote in an interim report on September 15, 1999: “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us.”
I was co-chair of that commission with my Senate colleague Warren Rudman.
In another interim report on April 15, 2000: “The U.S. survival interests include America’s safety from direct attack … by either states or terrorists.” And further: “In light of the new dangers arising from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, the United States must focus anew on how to maintain a robust and powerful deterrent to all forms of attack on its territory and its critical assets.
Then, in the Commission’s final report delivered to the George W. Bush’s new administration on January 31, 2001, our Commission summarized as its first conclusion: “The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack. A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century.”
Elsewhere we did conclude that there would be a terrorist attack and that Americans would lose their lives on American soil, possibly in large numbers. Our first recommendation was to create a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security combining security assets already in existence.
At a press conference that day, the correspondent for one of the nation’s leading newspapers left early, saying to one of our advisors, “none of this is going to happen.” A mere eight months later it did happen and more than 3,000 Americans lost their lives unnecessarily.
It took the new administration more than a year and a half after the 9/11 attack to launch the new Department of Homeland Security. At its core, as our Commission had recommended, was the consolidation of Border Patrol, Customs, and Coast Guard. They did not have a common database or communications system on 9/11. That could have been achieved in the eight months between our Commission’s report and the attack. It was not and it led to huge breaches in our border security.
Twenty years later is too late to be pointing fingers of blame. It is not too late for a new generation of leaders to learn this lesson: when thoughtful, experienced, and sober men and women with national security, military, and intelligence backgrounds raise warning flags such as our Commission did, pay attention.
This means also leaders in the media who did not take the time to understand that our Commission was not just another government study. It was the most comprehensive survey of a new, post-Cold War security environment since 1947. It deserved broadcast and debate.
A few days ago, a former law partner sent a clipping from a leading Montreal newspaper dated September 5, 2001, covering a speech I had delivered there to an international air transportation association. The headline was ominous: “Thousands is U.S. will die, ex-presidential hopeful says.”
“There is a strong likelihood the United States will be hit by a major terrorist strike in the coming 25 years that will inflict thousands of casualties and wreak major changes in American society, according to former U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Gary Hart.
“Hart said yesterday the projection was made by experts consulted by a U.S. national security commission he recently chaired.
” ‘The conclusion was that, for the first time since 1812, Americans will lose their lives in large numbers on American soil by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.’ ”
Gary Hart is a former U.S. senator from Colorado.