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9/11, A Decade After -- We must remain vigilant and courageous

Gen. Barry McCaffrey

America is immeasurably more secure today at the tenth anniversary of 9/11 because of the enormous energy, resources, leadership, planning, and blood that we have poured into our national military and domestic security efforts. 

On 9/11, we lost nearly 3,000 innocent Americans, murdered while going about their daily lives. It was an attack of great cleverness, great daring, great surprise and simplicity. This was the greatest single loss of American life since the Battle of Antietam.

We were shamefully unprepared that day. We displayed a combination of massive incompetence and arrogance in failing to protect our people from a known domestic threat. We had specific and credible intelligence indications that pointed to the precise type of attack and the actual perpetrators that would carry it out. We ignored blatant evidence that the desperate attack was looming in front of us. Our national security guardians in the new Administration were not unintelligent -- they were unseeing, they lacked curiosity, they lacked imagination, they could not see reality behind the insistent warning briefings. The president, the attorney general, the intelligence services, the FBI, the Pentagon, the media, and congressional oversight failed us.  They were never held accountable.

Our national reaction to this embarrassing and bitter blow was massive, lethal, well resourced, creative and energetic. We launched a global military and intelligence response that has stunned and badly damaged the dozens of potential terrorist organizations that menaced our people. Al Qaeda has been terrorized, along with its financial supporters. Most of its key leadership has been killed or neutralized. Most of the 44 terrorist organizations that we now monitor are on the defensive. The jihadist terror groups have, to a large extent, lost credibility in the devout Muslim world -- which has suffered so greatly from their malignant actions. Governments that supported the work of terrorists have been intimidated or directly attacked. 

Our brave armed forces have suffered 51,000 killed and wounded in direct confrontations with Iraqi and Afghan threats. Our covert agencies have scoured the earth to find terrorist leadership and then killed them or put them into survival operations. We have been helped by huge amounts of luck -- and a sense by our international partners that they were in many ways more in the cross-hairs of these murderous organizations than we were.

Our domestic law enforcement organizations -- federal, state, and local -- have become immensely more effective. Manpower, money, training, integration of intelligence and communications, and combined planning have improved light years in the past decade. Three secretaries of homeland security --- Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and the current secretary, Janet Napolitano, have pulled together a newly-created Department of Homeland Security (the third largest department of government) which for the first time in our national history gives us a coherent national strategy and direction to domestic security.

However, we are still at great peril. In the coming decade, we will suffer devastating losses of people and infrastructure -- as well as economic losses from the consequences of terrorist attacks if we do not finish the work that we began and re-engage the American people. The fear has receded. The energy has drained out of our leadership efforts. Years of failed attack efforts by ham-fisted and bizarre foreign terrorists (the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, etc.) have dulled our apprehensions.

Our greatest concern should be to more effectively involve the American people in our security efforts. As part of this concern, we should recognize that the National Guard is too small, too engaged as an alternate expeditionary war-fighting organization, and ill-structured to adequately support border control, law enforcement, humanitarian and post-strike disaster mitigation operations. We need great expansion of the part-time National Guard at community and state levels to provide low-cost capabilities (perhaps with a national draft for domestic military service only). We need a huge increase in lightly equipped National Guard units with off-the-shelf commercial technology -- to provide military police, chem/bio/radiological decontamination, reconnaissance, engineering, medical, rotary wing aviation, ground and water transportation, and logistics operations.

The National Guard is the central pillar of American domestic security during any type of major disaster or emergency. It is transparently connected to the people. It is very inexpensive, if not asked to have a dual foreign deployment and high intensity war-fighting capability. It can operate under “Non-Title 10 roles,” under the control of state governors. The National Guard is our institution of last resort.

The Department of Defense has 2.4 million men and women in its active, reserve, Guard and civilian components. It is adequate in structure and resources to its assigned international security tasks. However, the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Marshals, the Public Health Service, the diplomatic corps, USAID and the FBI are all anemically structured and resourced. These are the institutions that must be adequately modeled to face the new national security threats.

There is a politically explosive issue facing the American people. We cannot begin to protect ourselves if we lack any notion of national ID cards. An internal national ID card system could take the form of mandatory state drivers’ licenses with bio-metric identifiers to allow domestic law enforcement to focus on threats to our internal security -- and ignore the millions of citizens going about their daily business. We require licenses for dog walkers and hair dressers. We are also fortunate to have 12 million foreigners living in the country, growing our food, doing construction, caring for our children and the elderly, and doing much of the hard physical work to keep the country running. We cannot protect ourselves without sensible immigration reform -- and a national ID card database.

The oversight role of Congress for homeland security functions is a disgrace. More than 34 congressional committees have a piece of the responsibility. There is no sensible long range strategy. Pork barrel politics and partisan deadlock are the hallmarks of this disjointed effort. There should be symmetry to the DHS budget process that parallels the oversight of the Department of Defense, with one committee in each chamber responsible for the appropriations function.

We need a more sensible public discussion of the risks and rewards of enhanced American security. We must tolerate some levels of danger. We do not want to overly restrict our freedoms. We do not want an intrusive police state. We do not want a nation that loses its openness and warm friendship to foreign immigration -- and foreign tourism and students. 

Finally, we want the American people to remain unfettered by government intervention when possible. We must keep the CIA and the armed forces strictly excluded from domestic evidence gathering and apprehensions. We must constrain domestic law enforcement to be under the absolute control of elected authorities. We want law enforcement to be forced to seek authority from the judicial system to enter our homes, or detain us or snoop in our affairs. 

Finally, we must not so publicly agonize over our occasional losses and then over-react with new internal restrictions. We must frequently content ourselves with vengeance attacks on foreign terrorist organizations -- and not think we need to fix the foreign root causes that created the threat. We must on many occasions, when dismayed by what we see in the international community, mind our own business -- and not try to solve the problems of a cruel and chaotic world.

We have come a long way since 9/11. Thankfully, we have preserved our culture of democracy. We have protected our people from further devastating attack. We have struck fear in the hearts of those who would do us harm. In the coming decade, we must remain vigilant and courageous.

Barry McCaffrey served in the U.S. for 32 years and retired as a four-star General. At retirement, he was the most highly-decorated serving General, having been awarded three Purple Heart medals for wounds received in his four combat tours. For five years after leaving the military, McCaffrey served as the nation's cabinet officer in charge of U.S. drug policy. He can be reached at:

[email protected]



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