The six biggest vulnerabilties a decade after 9/11

Mark Lennihan/AP - 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.

Despite the often grotesque inefficiencies of our government, America has done a lot of things right in the ten years after September 11 and the six years after the 9/11 Commission Report. We have actively prevented any major attacks in the United States, have effectively destroyed Al Qaeda as a mortal threat, and have killed Osama Bin Laden.


Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman on the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman on the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.


Former Congressman and U.S. Ambassador Tim Roemer on the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.

Former Congressman and U.S. Ambassador Tim Roemer on the most important leadership lesson he learned from serving on the 9/11 Commission.

9/11 Commission Roundtable


And in this time, we also have regained our self-confidence as nation. An Islamist threat will be with us for many years in the future—we have recognized this, yet not panicked; not abandoned the Bill of Rights and our civil liberties. Certainly these accomplishments have come at a very high price in blood, treasure and influence. Whether our decision to intervene in Iraq was necessary or wise will be long debated. Still, if how well we have applied the 9/11 Commission’s 41 recommendations is any measure of our progress, the glass is considerably more full than empty.

But it has fallen to our lot as commissioners to continue to nag the government about those vulnerabilities that remain. I won’t list all of them here, nor have we as commissioners tried to agree on the priorities, but there are six critical weaknesses I find most important to fix:

1. The Director of National Intelligence

The commission recommended creation of a very powerful intelligence executive with a lean headquarters but real power over budget and personnel for the entire U.S. intelligence community. We intended the position to tear down the stovepipes that prevented the sharing and fusing of information, to reduce bureaucratic bloat, and to focus the intelligence effort.

While Congress created such a position, Presidents Bush and Obama have made it neither lean nor powerful. There’s now a huge new bureaucracy sitting on top the existing 15 agencies; and this despite that the Director of National Intelligence is without budget or personnel powers. In the six years since the role was created, there have been four directors.

2. The FBI

It is time to re-open the issue of splitting domestic law enforcement and domestic intelligence, as they do in the UK. Here the FBI does both, and law enforcement dominates. The commissioners felt it would be too disruptive in the critical post-9/11 environment to attempt such a split, but ten years later we need to make the separation and strengthen domestic intelligence.

3. Radio spectrum

The fact that police and fireman nationwide were confined to a very narrow and saturated radio spectrum, while swaths of bandwidth went unused, greatly contributed to high casualties in New York. A decade later, our presidents and Congress have still done nothing to fix this problem for first responders.

4. Identity checks

Eighteen of the hijackers obtained 30 false state-issued IDs that enabled them to board the planes on 9/11. This is easily remedied by the Real-ID system requiring proof of identity. So far only 22 states have adopted this standard. Moreover, while we’ve instituted the reliable US-VISIT system, which requires all visitors entering the United States prove they are who they say they are, there still has been nothing put in place to record when or whether visitors have left the country.

5. Congressional reform

Effective oversight of our intelligence community requires effective congressional committees. The House and Senate intelligence committees do not have such powers, and are routinely overruled or ignored by appropriations and other committees.

Six years ago, when we were drafting our 9/11 Commission recommendations, we suggested that the Department of Homeland Security report to 2 committees and subcommittees in each house of Congress rather than the 88 they did at the time. But instead of seeing major reductions since then, they now report to 106 committees and subcommittees. This has to change.

6. Presidential transitions

Our investigation found that a major contributor to the systemic failures in September 2001 was the fact that, a whole nine months after President Bush’s inauguration, most of the senior national security presidential appointments were still not in place. The causes were an inexperienced and ponderous White House selection process, an antiquated and lengthy FBI clearance process, and a Senate confirmation process that was slow, intrusive and overwhelmed by volume—it required confirmation down to a relatively low level of appointee. The transition to the Obama administration was just as bad. We recommended changes that could easily fix this serious vulnerability, but they have been ignored.

Ten years after the attack, Americans are more secure and should be quite proud of that; but we need to keep the pressure on our elected leaders to carry through on fixing the glaring vulnerabilities remaining. The task will always be a work in progress. The threats to our values and way of life will always be evolving. Still, we can and must ensure that American ingenuity will always stay ahead of them.

John Lehman was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and a member of the 9/11 Commission.

Related Articles:

Tim Roemer: Ten years after September 11, America’s unfinished business

Fred F. Fielding: A commission designed to fail — that didn’t

Slade Gorton: President Obama, President Bush and the 9/11 leadership lesson

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