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Reflections on Sept. 11

John C. Gannon '66By 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 alumni—Edward 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 best—evil 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 reach.

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 world.

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.

What Happened?
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 theirs.

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 Sept. 11.

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 people—not powerful armies or sophisticated weapons—made 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 these minds.

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.

Intelligence Community:
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.

Foreign Policy:
The world's most powerful nation has no choice but to engage internationally. It needs a strategic framework—and much greater investment in its diplomatic corps—to 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 alone.

Foreign Aid:
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 University.


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