9/11-10 years later
Top officials from across the nation speak on national security, privacy and terrorism
By Joan Trossman Bien 09/08/2011
“The handfuls of fanatics and lunatics that have existed throughout the history of humankind have, in our age, become an increasingly potent force to be reckoned with. And how we deal with that in the context of a democratic society and remain a democratic society is one of the major challenges we face.”
— Brian Jenkins, terrorism expert, RAND Corporation
Ten years ago, we were told that things would never be the same again. On Sept. 10, 2001, there was no Department of Homeland Security, no Transportation Security Administration, and no Patriot Act. Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were unfamiliar names and 911 was an emergency phone number. We could not have anticipated how much freedom we would be forced to sacrifice in exchange for the hope of enhanced safety.
During the ensuing decade, America would fight two wars on the other side of the globe, wars that were nearly impossible to understand, have defied any recognizable measure of success and, much like the Vietnam War, have turned into the predicted quagmire, sucking enormous amounts of scarce funds and resources from this country. Still, the U.S. has experienced less terrorist violence during that period than it had in the previous 40 years.
Brian Jenkins is the senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation. Jenkins said this current stretch of time without a large-scale attack is unprecedented in recent history.
“To find a 10-year period before that, you have to go back to the ’60s,” Jenkins said. “You have to go back through 9/11; through the embassy bombings in Africa; through the Oklahoma City bombing; the first World Trade Center bombing; Lockerbie, which killed 270 people back in the ’80s; Beirut, the Marines, killing 244. During the ’70s there were 50 to 60 terrorist bombings a year.”
How much of this relative peace has been the result of America’s response to the audacious attack? It is difficult to know. But the creation of a new and powerful government agency has changed the country and its citizens in ways that have altered the American definition of democracy and freedom.
Department of Homeland Security
The newest federal agency with the Orwellian name and the power to devour many smaller agencies has been hailed as a hero and jeered for being the biggest bully in town. In 2011, it was given a budget of $98.8 billion. It has more than 200,000 employees and is the third-largest Cabinet department. Its creation was the biggest governmental change since the Cold War, gobbling up 22 other government agencies. It is composed of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Much of what the Department of Homeland Security does is out of public view. There is no transparency and no oversight, partly because so much is considered to be in the interest of national security.
The Associated Press reported that Steven Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists said, “Secrecy short-circuits the whole democratic deliberative system, and it’s fundamentally at odds with the kind of society we are all committed to.”
Of all of the new rules and agencies that were hastily put in place immediately following 9/11, nothing has been more controversial than the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act
Since the passage of the Patriot Act, nearly 4,000 federal, state and local groups are now involved in counterterrorism.
The National Security Agency has about 30,000 people intercepting about 1.7 billion e-mails and other communications daily. This past June, the 14,000 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation were given new powers to search databases, look through household trash surreptitiously and investigate “persons of interest.” The Treasury Department has used expanded guidelines to subpoena the records of millions of transactions.
Certain sections of the Patriot Act have become lightning rods for civil libertarians. Erwin Chemerinsky is a constitutional expert and dean of the new University of California at Irvine law school. Chemerinsky said that two sections of the Patriot Act trouble him the most.
“Both national security letters (section 505) and section 215 (warrantless surveillance for ‘persons of interest’) give the government the ability to obtain, by a letter, a great deal of personal information and without having to disclose it to the person whose information has been revealed,” Chemerinsky said. “I think these together have been a very substantial erosion of our privacy and without people realizing that it is happening. Those disclosing the information aren’t allowed to reveal to the person it is about that it has been turned over.”
A national security letter is a type of administrative subpoena used by the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense and other agencies. It is without the most important procedural safeguards prescribed by the Fourth Amendment, which are judicial oversight and probable cause. Penalties for violating the demand letter or the nondisclosure requirement have recently been strengthened. The recipient of such a letter is forbidden to tell anyone at all that the letter has, in fact, been received.
Between 2003 and 2006, the FBI issued about 192,500 national security letter requests. An FBI internal audit uncovered violations of its own rules more than 1,000 times between 2002 and 2007.
“There are limits as to what is supposed to be gained from a national security letter,” Chemerinsky said. “Those limits were completely ignored, and things that shouldn’t be gained through national security letters were (learned), because there is no one there to check and monitor it. Both of these provisions have tremendously expanded the government’s ability to gain private information about individuals without procedural safeguards.”
The FBI has violated many other provisions of the rules. “For example, the special agent in charge of an office is supposed to be the one who signs off on a national security letter,” Chemerinsky said. “But it turns out, field agents routinely issued them and they were signed off as an absolutely routine matter.”
Many people have said that they have nothing to hide and that’s why they support these aspects of the Patriot Act. The data mining, however, goes very deep into personal information and includes medical records.
“Imagine someone has cancer and they don’t want anyone in their workplace to know or any of their friends to know for personal reasons,” Chemerinsky continued. “I don’t want anybody to know what books I’m reading because people are going to be chilled from reading certain kinds of books if they know the government is monitoring what kinds of books they are reading.”
Recently, there has been a controversy in Congress over how the government legally interprets some of the more ambiguous portions of the Patriot Act. If the public has no idea precisely what is illegal or what would trigger close government monitoring of their lives, then how can the public conform to the rules?
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., presented a bill to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last spring in an attempt to force the government to produce a report about when the Patriot Act’s limits have been exceeded.
The senators wrote, “We believe that most members of the American public would be very surprised to learn how federal surveillance law is being interpreted in secret.”
After the committee rejected the request, the senators wrote, “Intelligence agencies need to have the ability to conduct secret operations, but they should not be allowed to rely on secret laws.”
To share or not to share: That is the intelligence question
Erik Kleinsmith works for Lockheed Martin as program director for the Intelligence and Security Training Program. He was an active member of the group that was involved in the controversial project called Able Danger. It was reported that this group tried to convince government agencies to investigate several people, including two of the 9/11 hijackers based in San Diego. Though the group claimed the information was extremely important, it was officially dismissed. The group disbanded and the data was ordered to be erased. Kleinsmith was the man who erased it.
“We were shut down for fear of data mining U.S. persons’ information, which was completely ridiculous, but they shut us down anyway,” Kleinsmith said. “That information and the mapping we had done could have saved us from the attacksv. There was a bureaucratic wall that existed between the different organizations. We tried to share information on several different things that we were working on. We would share that information with the FBI but there was never an appreciation for what we showed them or even acknowledgment that we had given them some key information.”
Kleinsmith said there is a so-called badge mentality, which means law enforcement agencies do not give credence to any other organization that does not carry a law enforcement badge.
“A lot of the agencies, the way they operated was to hold their cards as close to the chest as possible, because if I share information with you, that means that I’m giving you the ability to take credit for the work I’ve done,” he said.
“One of the worst agencies that did that was the NSA.”
9/11 Lessons being postponed
With all of the agencies that gather information about the security of the U.S., it is shocking what former President George W. Bush said in a recent interview about his reaction to the news that the World Trade Center towers had both been hit by commercial jets.
Bush said his first reaction was anger, as in, “Who the hell would do that to America?” Even in the days following the attack on 9/11, Bush said, he “didn’t have a strategy” and made decisions “day by day.”
He also said he continued to read the storybook to the class of children in Florida because the parents sitting in the room were expecting to hear about the reading program, but instead heard “America is under attack.”
This less-than-commanding reaction from the former commander in chief may have set the tone for the failure of large corporations to spend the money necessary to properly prepare for future attacks. The Willis Tower in Chicago (formerly the Sears Tower) tops out at 110 stories and is the tallest building in North America. That makes it an obvious target for terrorists.
Although cosmetic improvements have been made, such as the installation of concrete barriers, metal detectors and security cameras, none of the security improvements do anything to prevent a tragedy like the one experienced at the World Trade Center. Proposals to retrofit this building to prevent the pancaking of floors that was seen in the collapse of the towers have been ignored, mostly due to the cost. Even equipping elevators for a reasonable evacuation, as has been done in Europe, has been dismissed.
Koch Industries, which is privately owned by brothers David and Charles Koch, controls 56 facilities that use hazardous chemicals. Should these facilities be attacked, it would place at risk 4.8 million Americans who happen to live near one of those plants.
Although Koch Industries has made improvements in safety and environmental areas, it has vigorously fought the imposition of new counter-terrorism rules that would require petrochemical manufacturers to use less hazardous methods and chemicals. Instead, Koch Industries has put a huge effort into lobbying against the new rules, spending $44 million over the past four years. The risks faced by nearby residents in a worst-case scenario would be explosions, chemical spills or poisonous gas clouds.
Who are the terrorists and what will they do next?
The perception of what terrorists can really do has changed considerably in the past decade. “A lot of terrorist scenarios that were categorized as remote or unlikely on Sept. 10, 2001, on Sept. 12, 2001, became operative productions because in the wake of 9/11, we certainly couldn’t dismiss anything,” Jenkins said. “We have certainly degraded our terrorist foes’ operational capabilities, al-Qaida. We haven’t dented their determination one bit. They remain devoted to attacking the United States.”
Jenkins said that the approach has been changed and decentralized. “The threat we now face from the jihadist is quite different from what it was on 9/11,” he said. “One of the fundamental changes that we’ve seen, al-Qaida has embraced a do-it-yourself strategy that is exhorting volunteers to do whatever they can, wherever they are.
Individualist jihad is how they refer to it.”
Jenkins said there have been terrorist plots that have been short-circuited due to intelligence. “Al-Qaida is a resilient and opportunistic organization, and if we look at some of the plots that have been interrupted since 9/11, most notably the 2006 plot to bring down planes flying over the Atlantic, that would have given them casualties in the realm of another 9/11,” he said.
Although there have been other failed schemes to bring down airliners and cargo planes, Jenkins puts the personal risk of each American into perspective.
“The average American has about a 1 in 6,000 or 7,000 chance of dying in an automobile accident,” he said. “The average American has about a 1 in 16,000 chance of dying as a consequence of ordinary homicide. Even including 9/11 and the 10 years since, the average American has less than a 1 in a million chance of dying at the hands of a terrorist.”
And yet, the hyperbole that fills the airwaves and newspapers that comes out of the mouths of politicians is, at best, ill-considered. “I think a lot of people became needlessly alarmed and frightened as a consequence of 9/11, and others have really spent a great deal of time scaring the hell out of us.”
For example, at a luncheon last month in Oklahoma City, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., spoke at the museum located at the site of the 1995 bombing. Inhofe is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He issued a dire warning about North Korea and its potential nuclear capacity, mentioning that it is now developing long-range missiles.
“It’s a country run by a monster,” he told the group, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. “They want to kill everybody in this room. Terrorists want to kill you. They hate freedom.”
The political use of the word “terrorist” is a bipartisan affair. During the administration’s discussions with Tea Party members about raising the debt ceiling, Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., was reported to have said, “We have negotiated with terrorists. This small group of terrorists have made it impossible to spend any money.”
A few days earlier, a former staffer of Sen. Ted Kennedy wrote, “It has become commonplace to call the Tea Party faction in the House ‘hostage takers,’ but now they have become full-blown terrorists.”
Jenkins believes this type of over-the-top speech is simply inaccurate. “We tend to use the word ‘terrorism’ a bit promiscuously. It becomes a kind of pejorative label we can attach to anything. I would prefer to see the term really confined to the use or threat of violence.”
Jenkins also takes issue with the term “lone wolf.” He said, “It romanticizes the perpetrator. I tend to use the term ‘stray dog.’ They sniff at the edge of ideology, they’re skittish, they come individually or in packs, they bark a lot, they tend to be not very competent terrorists.”
What’s up next?
The 10th anniversary of 9/11 — there are differing opinions from the experts as to the likelihood of a large attack.
Jenkins said, “The anniversary of 9/11 would be a particularly symbolic time for spoiling our commemorations for the event. Without specific intelligence saying that a group is about to do that, there is great concern on the part of the authorities as we approach that date.”
Kleinsmith said there are other more significant dates. “The terrorists know that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is important to us and the security level is going to be too high for them to do anything. What I would look toward are other symbolic pieces that they have identified but we have not necessarily identified ourselves. Plan on them to out-think us.”
As for whatever may occur in the future, Jenkins has a strong belief in America and Americans. “In reality, we have, as a country, survived and we will survive. We survive not simply because of the concrete barriers or the increased surveillance or communications abroad; we survive because of our inherent courage, our self-reliance, our sense of community, our commitment to our own values, all which create our ultimate defense against terrorism.
Richard Zoglin and Charla Krupp live in New York City. The longtime married couple each had a career in media.
Richard was working as an editor for Time Magazine on 9/11. Charla has worked as a beauty editor for fashion magazines such as Glamour and InStyle. This is their story.
The day began with Richard and Charla watching The Today Show together, as usual. They saw on the news that, incredibly, a jet had flown straight into the enormous World Trade Center tower. But they didn’t give it a lot of thought.
“On Sept. 11, I was all raring to go, my first real jury duty,” Richard said. “I got on the subway, and if I had taken the route I usually take, I would have gotten off under the World Trade Center.” Instead, he took a different route.
“I walked about four blocks to the courthouse and I saw crowds of people out in the street. Everybody was buzzing about what was going on at the World Trade Center, which was on fire.”
Being several blocks away, tall buildings blocked Richard’s view of the towers. So he walked a few more blocks to get closer.
“I just remember looking up and seeing both towers on fire. I was pretty close to it, but not close enough to be worried. Rumors were that planes had hit the towers, that planes had hit the White House and the Capitol and the Pentagon. But you didn’t know what to believe. Then something would happen and you would see a crowd of people kind of running away from some area. It was pretty scary. I overcame my panic to see what was going on.”
That was when it became very real. “Then I heard this huge rumble, this horrible rumble. I didn’t know what it was. It sounded like just a huge boom rolling rumble. Then I saw smoke sort of billowing out from that area, and that was clearly the first tower going down. I just thought maybe another bomb had gone off.”
That was when the reporter in Richard emerged. “After the rumble, I remember seeing the first person walking away, totally covered in dust. Head to foot in ash. He said he had been on the 70th floor, walked down the stairs and got out. That could very well have been the first interview done with a survivor of the World Trade Center. I just happened to be there.”
Richard then saw a group of men who had emerged from the disaster. He learned they were off-duty first responders who had shown up to help. They had been caught in the collapse of one of the towers.
“They took shelter in something; they were somehow shielded from the collapse of the building. It was unbelievable that these guys survived. The guy telling me the story didn’t even know the building had collapsed. He thought another plane had hit the building. Even when you were there, you didn’t know exactly what happened.”
That particular anecdote was included in Time’s special-edition cover story. Other reporters were showing up and Richard was tired. Without the subway, he walked to a cousin’s apartment in SoHo. The wife there had been in her studio and heard a roar.
“She looked up and saw a plane flying ridiculously low. So she saw the first plane.”
Richard was still so disoriented that he had to ask what the date was. He knew it was going to be one to remember.
He said that only after seeing the story on the news did he learn that both towers had collapsed.
Charla had not heard from Richard for several hours. Cell phone service was impossible, and the few pay phones on the streets had long lines. Finally, she got a call from her cousin.
“I was thrilled because I didn’t know what had happened to Richard. I’m thinking that maybe the building fell on him.”
Charla, who hails from the Chicago area, did not have a very positive opinion of New Yorkers. But that day, things changed.
“People were actually going down to the highway and cheering all the fire trucks from out of state who were coming to save New York. That was a big thing. You felt this desire that you needed to do something.”
Being in the beauty business, Charla gathered the supplies that were needed to attend to medical issues, things like cotton balls and tweezers. She also contacted major beauty suppliers to get more of what was being requested.
“New Yorkers are really a tough bunch and they are really selfish, but on that day everyone came together and did what they could.”