John C. Gannon '66
The stunning terrorist attacks last September robbed the
United States and over 80 other countries of nearly 3,000
innocent lives, including those of seven distinguished Holy
Cross alumniEdward A. Brennan III '86, Thomas D. Burke
'85, Neilie A Casey '90, John G. Farrell '91, Todd A. Isaac
'94, Beth A. Quigley '97 and John J. Ryan '78. We have since
come to know many of the victims as people, striking in their
individuality, but all of strong character, extraordinary
accomplishment and endless promise. The human toll is staggering.
On that clear autumn day, we witnessed human nature at its
worst and at its bestevil and good in stark relief.
We saw, as never before, the vulnerability of our open society
in a world being shrunk by new technological and economic
forces. We observed the most powerful government on earth
unable to protect its people against a sophisticated and
well-financed terrorist network with unprecedented global
America will come back. Fear cannot be an operating principle
in our open society and market economy. But neither can our
government return to the status quo ante. It must develop
more effective security policies across several agencies,
better intelligence capabilities against today's complex
threats, and a more coherent foreign policy to respond to
the new challenges that are emerging from a rapidly changing
The White House and Congress will soon conduct reviews
to determine why the government was caught off guard on Sept.
11 and to recommend steps to enhance our security. In this
article, I offer some preliminary observations on these issues.
We can make progress, but there will be no easy fixes.
The attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington were, despite the shocking
scale and tragic impact, low-tech operations reminiscent of international
terrorism in the 1970s. The 19 Middle Eastern, mostly Saudi, hijackers converted
large, fully fueled aircraft into missiles. Aboard the aircraft, they used
simple box cutters as weapons to terrorize and subdue their victims. Luck
played heavily in their favor with a horrific result that apparently surprised
even Usama bin Ladin.
The attacks, however, were highly sophisticated in their
planning and coordination. Usama bin Ladin and his Al Qaeda
network were able to move people, information, and finance
across more than 30 countries from the pre-modern world of
Afghanistan to the post-modern world of the United States.
They were able to dodge our technical and human intelligence
collections systems. They were never a match for U.S. resources,
but they had carefully identified our vulnerabilities and
learned to exploit the networks of an increasingly networked
world. They knew a lot more about our world than we did about
The Al Qaeda perpetrators fit a new profile of older, better
educated, and more sophisticated operatives. Recall that
Usama bin Ladin is a Saudi child of privilege, not an Afghan
tribal leader. Several of the hijackers had lived in the
United States for some time, but the experience did not ease
their hostility to America. Some were married with children,
but the family ties did not soften their fanaticism or slow
their determination to bring other parents and children to
their deaths. They all came into the United States legally
and, for the most part, avoided the attention of American
law enforcement until their terrible deed was done.
The gruesome attacks were clearly targeted at the United
States. Citizens from over 80 other countries died with their
American colleagues in New York, and concerned citizens of
the world so admirably rose to support us. But the terrorists,
in targeting the World Trade Center and Pentagon, left no
doubt that America was the object of their rage. Their hatred
of the United States, along with a fanatical devotion to
Al Qaeda's extreme version of Islam, fueled their determination
and kept discipline tight as they unleashed the terror of
Some of the hatred toward the United States stems from
what the Arab world sees as the biased role of the United
States in the Middle East peace process. Some of it results
from the anti-U.S. dialogue that many Arab leaders permit
and even encourage in their countries to deflect attention
from their own failures to address growing demographic and
economic problems. Some of it comes from the promotion of
the simplistic view that the United States is the primary
beneficiary of a globalization process that is leaving Islamic
countries behind. The United States, in short, is blamed
for the deepening hardship and hopelessness that affect these
societies. A lot of this is unfair to the United States.
But we need to grasp it all.
We need to remember that people, fanatical peoplenot
powerful armies or sophisticated weaponsmade Sept.
11 happen, and that any successful counterterrorist strategy
will have to take into account the breeding ground for their
fanaticism. The perpetrators were and are criminals, mass
murderers, and should be treated as such. But many of their
sympathizers in the Middle East and Central and South Asia
are disaffected and impoverished people who are not criminals
and whose minds can be changed. America should want to change
The Search for Solutions
There is no silver bullet to defeat international terrorism.
Solutions must be comprehensive multifaceted, and long-term.
Progress will require patience, persistence and unprecedented
levels of international cooperation. Even then, the threat
can only be reduced but not fully eradicated as long as avenging
fanatics have easy access to weapons of mass destruction.
I would stress five areas in which we need to do better:
Counterterrorism policy and law:
The attacks surfaced multiple-point vulnerabilities across some 40 U.S. agencies
with counterterrorism responsibilities, including our intelligence services.
Serious shortfalls are now being addressed in immigration, airport security,
border control, and information sharing among intelligence services. With some
challenges from civil libertarians, legal constraints are being lifted that
had impeded basic surveillance of suspected terrorists, tracking their e-mail,
and monitoring their financial transactions. Vigilance is up and new technologies,
such as facial recognition, may facilitate this.
U.S. Government Networking:
In a networked world, the U.S. government is not networked! The new Office
of Homeland Security will take on this top priority, but progress will be
slow. Director Tom Ridge will need more authority and resources to network
U.S. federal, state, and local agencies, and to help Washington deal more
effectively with transnational threats like terrorism, narcotrafficking,
organized crime, the cyber threat, and threats to our space systems. Even
with state-of-the-art technology, the old habits of a "stovepiped" U.S.
bureaucracy will be hard to break.
We now know that there were dots that were never connected, though a serious
review will be required to determine how connectable they actually were.
We now know, for example, a lot about Al Qaeda cells that were operating
in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, and Italy. We also have a
deeper understanding of the Saudi connection to Islamic extremism and of
Pakistan's past support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. On the U.S. side,
cooperation among our intelligence services continues to be a work in progress.
So, what do we do? Intelligence Community reform has been a "business" imperative
for over 30 years, and a lot of quality time has gone into studying the issue,
but no administration has been willing to follow through with it. Yet only
the executive branch, in my view, has the power, resources, and attention
span to manage this reform effectively. Congress cannot do it, and the Intelligence
Community simply will not reform itself from within. I believe that the appointment
of a Presidential Commission of distinguished Americans would be the best
first step to identify the critical changes that are needed to build a more
collaborative Intelligence Community that is focused on future threats to
the United States.
The world's most powerful nation has no choice but to engage internationally.
It needs a strategic frameworkand much greater investment in its diplomatic
corpsto articulate America's values and priorities, and to mobilize
U.S. agencies, including our intelligence services, toward common objectives.
Today, it is clear that in the Middle East, and in Central and South Asia,
we need a coherent policy that integrates economic, political, diplomatic,
military, and security goals. It also is clear that, to succeed in its "global
war" on terrorism, the United States will have to embed its counterterrorism
policy in a comprehensive foreign policy with many more dimensions than security
Afghanistan has begun to restore this priority. The United States cannot deal
with failing states in the "underbelly of globalization" without
developing a program of material assistance. Gaps between "haves" and "have
nots" in today's world are not measured simply in growing economic terms
but also, alarmingly, in widening "digital," educational, and health-care
terms. The worry for us should be ethical and moral. It also relates to security,
since the developing world will have increasingly easy access to weapons
of mass destruction over the next decade.
The Way Ahead
Saturday evening Mass at Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown on Sept. 15 ended
with a robust chorus of "God Bless America," every stanza. I know
this happened in virtually every congregation across the country that sad,
reflective weekend. The American people, in this and so many other ways,
expressed an unshakable confidence in the midst of grief, a patriotism without
apology, a transcendent faith in the face of evil. There was never any doubt
that America would endure.
But our liberties cannot come at such a heavy price. We
need to work hard to improve our security against new global
threats and to understand better the sources from which they
arise. And we must hold our government accountable for leading
this effort. We owe this to the memory of the victims of
Sept. 11, including valued members our Holy Cross family;
to a much larger number of their children, parents, and siblings;
and to future generations of Americans who must be able to
bear witness to freedom all over the world.
John C. Gannon '66 is the vice-chairman of Intellibridge
Corp. He recently retired after four years as chairman
of the National Intelligence Council. In a 24-year career
at Central Intelligence Agency, he served as assistant
director for Analysis and Production and as the CIA's deputy
director for Intelligence. He also serves on on the board
of directors at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown