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As I noted around this time last year, the 9/11 Commission Report is on the syllabus for my seminar at Georgetown Law, Intelligence Reform and the Modern Intelligence Community. One of the main themes of the report is that, pre-9/11, the Intelligence Community was structured for the Cold War. But, the report cautioned, the 21st Century is and will continue to be one dominated by asymmetric and non-traditional threats; the U.S. government, and the intelligence community in particular, needed desperately to adjust.
The pages of my book are now yellowed, but as I skimmed it the other day, I again returned to this passage:
The men and the women of the World War II generation rose to the challenges of the 1940s and 1950s. They restructured the government so that it could protect the country. That is now the job of the generation that experienced 9/11.
The generation that experienced 9/11. Technically speaking, there were several generations: the one that was in charge when 9/11 occurred. I know many people in that generation who worked in government who now are at or nearing retirement. There was a younger generation who were children on 9/11. Those children, if touched by tragedy, could have lost a parent that day. But most of those children around the country knew nothing about what had happened; 9/11 is something they learned about in school later perhaps, or on TV. The generation in the middle – my generation – who were perhaps young adults, just starting out in a profession, is now firmly middle-aged. And we are, perhaps, on the brink of failure.
The last fifteen years witnessed plenty of government restructuring: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Counterterrorism Center, an Information Sharing Environment, the National Security Division of the Justice Department (celebrating its 10th anniversary this month), and much more. And, in large part, the country has been well protected as a result of these and many other legal, policy and bureaucratic overhauls.
But it is not enough.
Developing a long range plan for dissuading the next generation of Islamist terrorists was identified by the 9/11 Commission as an important goal. It is probably the one we have achieved with the least success, and, arguably, the least effort, in the last twelve years.
The co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, are highlighting this inadequacy on this fifteenth anniversary of the attacks. In a piece stunning in its pessimism, the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission wrote in USA Today that, “[t]he threat we face today is arguably worse than the one we confronted in 2001.” If they are correct – that the threat is worse today than it was fifteen years ago – then while we have succeeded in restructuring government, we have failed in curtailing the spread of Islamist terrorism. There is a whole new generation lured by ISIS and related terrorist groups. To address this remaining challenge, the co-chairmen will be “convening a task force of experts to develop a long-term strategy to combat terrorist ideology.” It can’t hurt, but from this observer’s perspective now out of government for some time, recent years in the national security space have focused too much on writing policies, strategies, plans, roadmaps and reports.
And besides, the answer, to some extent, is already on the weathered pages of their 2004 report:
The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for. We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring with our neighbors. America and Muslim friends can agree on respect for human dignity and opportunity. To Muslim parents, terrorist like Bin Ladin have nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death. America and its friends have a crucial advantage---we can offer these parents a vision that might give their children a better future. If we heed the views of thoughtful leaders in the Arab and Muslim world, a moderate consensus can be found.
What would that mean today? Here’s a quick start:
It would mean fully funding, surging, and openly coordinating an international coalition to destroy ISIS wherever it is located. (And, preferably, with less tweeting about this strike and that. Just tell us when they're dead and gone.)
However symbolic it may be, it would mean finding Omran and bringing him and his surviving immediate family to the U.S. or a comparable shelter of safety.
It would mean showing some leadership at the UN and demanding that an international humanitarian force provide meaningful safety to the people in and fleeing Syria. Because if they can't do humanitarian relief, what's their point?
It would mean ensuring that the ceasefire announced today is real and lasting.
It would have meant using our collective U.S. and allied technology and expertise to help authorities find the girls Boko Haram abducted and abused. It would mean being outraged for longer than the shelf life of a Twitter trend.
It would mean ensuring that the Taliban doesn’t regain its prior strength to rule and oppress.
In short, I'm skeptical that what we need after fifteen years of non-stop counterterrorism work is a task force of experts to draft a strategy.
The world might look at our 2016 political season and wonder where America is. A task force of experts isn’t going to find it and bring it back.
That is the challenge for the generation that experienced 9/11.