Ten years after September 11, America’s unfinished business

Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST - Ten years after September 11, those who served on the 9/11 Commission reflect on the leadership lessons America has — and hasn’t — learned since the tragedy.

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable, examining whether — ten years after September 11 — America has learned the leadership lessons from the 9/11 Commission Report. The panelists for this roundtable are six of the ten 9/11 Commissioners: Former Governor Thomas Kean and fomer Congressman Lee Hamilton, former Senator Slade Gorton, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, former White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding, and former Congressman and U.S. Ambassador Tim Roemer.

“It has been said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn.”

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Tim Roemer, former congressman and U.S. ambassador, talks to the Post's Lillian Cunningham about the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.

Tim Roemer, former congressman and U.S. ambassador, talks to the Post's Lillian Cunningham about the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.

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9/11 Commission Roundtable

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That was Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1963, eulogizing President Kennedy. His words are no less true today as we reflect on the 10-year anniversary of September 11. We still have unfinished business and critical 9/11 reforms to apply from that tragic day of painful loss and vivid shock.

In summer 2001 our intelligence agencies were “blinking red” with possible threats almost everywhere the United States had interests, including at home. A June 12 CIA report contained information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “was recruiting people to travel to the United States"; another terrorist threat advisory, distributed in late June, warned of attacks resulting in numerous casualties; and other reports warned “Bin Laden Attacks May Be Imminent”.

While some counterterrorism officials were on high alert because of these threats, others simply never received them due to the volume of reporting, the methods of dissemination and the culture of high classification. Our problem was not a lack of information, but a lack of sharing and connecting the dots of data within the government. Our intelligence agencies also failed to follow their own best practices for how to provide warning of an attack.

Just as there was a failure ten years ago to share information—and to “institutionalize imagination” in our bureaucracy and read the signals regarding Al Qaeda's intention to use airplanes as missiles—our government’s failure today to implement four key 9/11 Commission recommendations is keeping us from being as safe as we should be.

High on my list is Congress’s reluctance to streamline oversight of our homeland security. As a former member of Congress and Senate staffer, I know how highly inefficient and grossly wasteful it is to have the Department of Homeland Security report to 100 different committees and subcommittees. Such fragmentation cannot provide the coherent oversight that the department requires. Here is a prime example of where leadership in Congress can demonstrate a commitment to save tax payer money, drive focused oversight and lead efforts for 21st-century reorganization. Congress should reform itself so that it can help the DHS do its job better; this is a matter of urgent national security.

Additionally, we have seen insufficient action to create a dedicated communications network for our emergency personnel. Rescue workers could not talk to each other in the North and South World Trade Towers in New York City during the response, which led to a needless loss of life. Ten years later, we still have a dysfunctional system.

We must also establish a unity of command and effort in response to attacks. I vividly remember standing at the flaming Pentagon on the late afternoon of September 11th, ankle deep in debris and spying a desk hanging off the edge of an exposed room. The 9/11 Commission was impressed with the strong personal relationships and trust established between emergency responders and between the local and regional personnel who adopted the Incident Command System to lend their aid. But my sense is that there are still far too many communities where the lines of command and authority in the event of a disaster are not yet clearly drawn or understood.

Finally, while the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has had some success, it is in dire need of important powers. The director requires more budget authority and personnel discretion in order to be the real driver, and an effective central leader, of the intelligence community. Strengthening that office has to come from the Oval Office.

A wise proverb holds that “vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Our bipartisan 9/11 Commission worked precisely because we practiced both vision and action. Our vision was motivated by the personal loss and trauma of the attacks and by the high expectations of the American people. Vitally important, we benefitted from the counsel, expertise and occasional criticism of the 9/11 family members, who both prodded and inspired us. Our action was motivated by a clear and precise mandate from Congress with statutory instructions to investigate the facts surrounding the attacks and make recommendations to keep the country safe. We followed through on that commitment—and then leaders from Congress, from the 9/11 families and from the Executive Branch followed through as well by fighting to pass most of the 41 recommendations into law.

While there is still work to be done, we have learned a great deal from the failures of ten years ago and achieved many successes. Consecutive administrations have significantly degraded Al Qaeda's leadership and strength, including capturing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2003 and killing Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Our human intelligence, joint sharing and training operations, sophisticated technology, and creative use of imagination have improved. Moreover, we have successfully protected the American homeland from another catastrophic attack.

This can be partially attributed to the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center, which has placed personnel from relevant agencies side by side. And we have seen drastic improvement in sharing and collecting information with the development of 105 Joint Terrorism Task Forces and 72 fusion centers. Yet what method of terror will Al Qaeda turn to next? Staying ahead of them is essential.

Bold leadership is not simply understanding history but anticipating with our imagination the next set of threats, from cybersecurity to self-radicalization to emerging new global terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (the violent extremist group based in Pakistan). On September 11, I am hopeful that we will also recall the profound sense of American pride and national purpose that motivated us to donate blood, fly the flag, and work together as a united community. We have many challenges still to conquer. We will need those strengths.

Tim Roemer, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to India and as a U.S. congressman from Indiana, was on the 9/11 Commission.

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