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9/11 Commission: Americans can’t be complacent about new security threats

July 22, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
A decade since the release of a major report on the nation's preparedness and response to the September 11th attacks, the original bipartisan commission reconvened to produce a new assessment of current threats and challenges. Tom Kean, former New Jersey governor and chair of the committee, and Lee Hamilton, vice-chair and a former Indiana congressman, sit down with Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, 10 years ago, an independent group issued a 567-page report assessing the nation’s preparedness and response to the September 11 attacks. They’d been tasked by Congress with providing recommendations to keep the country safe from future attacks.

A decade later, the original group of five Democrats and five Republicans reconvened as part of an effort led by the Bipartisan Policy Center to produce a current assessment of the nation’s threats and challenges.

I spoke yesterday with the commission’s chair, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, a Republican, and vice-chair, former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana.

Governor Tom Kean, Representative Lee Hamilton, welcome to the NewsHour.

LEE HAMILTON, Former Co-Chairman, 9/11 Commission: Thank you.

TOM KEAN, Former Co-Chairman, 9/11 Commission: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you say in this report looking back 10 years that the U.S. government has done a good job of fighting terrorism, but you also say, Tom Kean, that you warn the struggle against terrorism has entered a new and dangerous phase. What do you base that on?

TOM KEAN: Well, the threat is different, but it’s no less.

It’s not one central al-Qaida based in Afghanistan, the way it was, trying to do a big operation. Now it’s scattered al-Qaida affiliates in a number of parts of the world, many more countries than they were before, all want to do us harm and all working on it one way or another to do it.

There are new bomb making techniques coming out of one al-Qaida group, this ISIS, which is a great danger, and another place, they’re training terrorists who could come over any time. So there’s a lot going on. And the American people just can’t be complacent. We need to protect ourselves now as much we did the day before 9/11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Lee Hamilton, does that mean we are not safer today?

LEE HAMILTON: I think we’re safer than we were prior to 9/11. Not safe enough.

And we still live in a dangerous world, where a lot of people want to do us harm. So we must consider the urgency of the threat, keep it in front of the American people. We have got a pretty good record, not a perfect record. We have had no event like 9/11. We have had some incidents like Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon.

But, overall, all the money we have spent, the organizations we have with created, we have a good record, but not a perfect one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Kean, one of the things you say is that this lack of security today is partly the result of the U.S. — quote — “inability or reluctance to exert power and influence in a number of places.”

Are you saying if the U.S. had gone into Syria, for example, we wouldn’t be in this situation?

TOM KEAN: There’s some who would say that. I wouldn’t necessarily say it myself. And it’s absolutely not what we’re saying as a group.

But, yes, the United States is — the world can’t do without us. We are the one power, neutral power, generally projected for democratic good in the world. And when we step back, a lot of other people rush in. And the world is now such a strange place with so many different areas, particularly since the Arab spring.

We said the one thing you can’t allow is a place where terrorists can train and prepare the way they did in Afghanistan before 9/11. And those places are being created today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that would mean, Lee Hamilton, a more activist United States abroad militarily. The American people though don’t have an appetite for that necessarily, do they?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, I think it really is changing.

We are not putting boots on ground for combat. That’s pretty clear. Policy-makers don’t come in with a clean slate. They know the American people don’t want to get militarily involved there. What does that mean?  What it means is, you have to use other tools of power.

And that can be covert action, it can be diplomacy, it can be political steps, economic leverage, all kinds of things. But we’re not going to be putting troops on the ground. But, as we withdraw, we take a major tool of American foreign policy out of the picture. We will have to put other things in its place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you saying the administration hasn’t done that sufficiently?

TOM KEAN: I think they can always do better.

They’re doing it to some degree, but not the way I would like to see it. We need, I think, to be involved particularly in these areas in that part of the world that are so unsettled. We need America there. We need our principles, our morals, our democratic point of view expressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also single out cyber-threats as an area that you worry a great deal about.

TOM KEAN: We talked to every official having intelligence responsibilities in the Obama administration and people who have left the Obama administration. Every single one said terrorism — cyber-security was a real threat.

Every single one of them said we’re way behind on it. Some of them said, we’re the way we were before 9/11, the day before 9/11, as far as cyber goes. And so we’re having a huge transfer of knowledge, secrets coming from the private sector, costing us jobs, secrets coming from the Defense Department and some of our newest technology all being stolen.

And it’s being done quietly, so the American people aren’t really aware of how seriously it’s affecting us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that gets to something that underlies this entire report, Lee Hamilton.

And that is that you say the American people are just not sufficiently aware of how bad, how serious this threat is.

LEE HAMILTON: Well, they have become complacent. And why not?  We haven’t had an attack like 9/11. That’s good. That’s a success.

But because of the success, they have become more complacent. What we worry about is that as they become more complacent, they won’t talk to their representatives about it. Congress will reflect it. The executive branch will reflect it. And they will cut appropriations. They will lower their guard on counterterrorism efforts. And we’re saying that would be a mistake, a big mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much of this, Tom Kean, is the president’s responsibility to make sure that people think about the threat that’s still there?

TOM KEAN: I think a great deal of responsibility, because the president is the only one who can speak to the American people as a whole and rally them.

This report is somewhat like an alarm bell in the night. There are very serious things going on here. We don’t think the American people are aware of it. We don’t think in some ways the government is as prepared as they should be for the threats out there. And we hope that the president will take the leadership in explaining the threat and also explaining in more detail than he has the kind of steps we’re going to take to meet the threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sounding the alarm 10 years after the first 9/11 report.

We thank you both, Congressman Lee Hamilton, Governor Tom Kean.

TOM KEAN: Thank you.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.