Thomas Kean co-chaired the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- the 9/11 Commission -- which developed recommendations for how the government should be reformed to combat terrorism. Here, he discusses the government's progress to date and his deep concerns about the 9/11 Commission's recommendations yet to be implemented. Kean also assesses the terror threat facing the United States from Al Qaeda and from within. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted March 27, 2006.
... What was the overall mission of the 9/11 Commission?
Well, we had two missions really. One was to tell the full story from the beginning -- from the actual formation of the plot, history of Al Qaeda, right up to how they developed that plot, how they used it, how 19 people basically beat every defense the United States government had to offer and pulled it off -- to tell that whole story of how that happened and along the way learn from it.
Then the second part of our job, having learned from it, was to make recommendations -- and we made 41 of them -- that were designed to make the American people safer.
What was the administration's attitude toward the idea of the commission?
Well, they opposed the commission when it was proposed first in Congress; they didn't think it was necessary. They were very tentative toward it when we first were formed. But I'll say, in all honesty, when the president called me, ... all he said basically was, "Do the best job you can." There were no other instructions.
And you say you made recommendations. The administration says, "We adopted almost all of them," right?
Everybody says they're the right recommendations. We haven't had anybody look at our 41 recommendations and say, "We're not going to do this or that," so everybody says they're working on them. But it's too slow; I mean, this is five years later, and it's too slow. The fact that we are still not as safe as we should be because a number of these recommendations -- and they involve all the way from intelligence agencies to the United States Congress -- the fact that these things haven't been adopted yet is really unacceptable. ...
In your experience with the commission, what was the biggest mistake [before 9/11]?
... The trouble is there were so many of them. I'll tell you something that seems very small, but 15 of the 19 hijackers shouldn't have gotten into this country. When they presented their documents, they were either forged or they had something on the documents that somebody should have spotted. ...
That's a very simple start. Then from the time they got into the country, again and again, they just came up against what [were] supposed to be our defenses, and they didn't work. Intelligence -- we made that a big subject -- intelligence agencies didn't talk to each other and didn't report through. The chain of command didn't work very well. NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] even on the day of the attacks didn't work very well. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] didn't do its job. ...
Foreign policy failed; we couldn't get [Osama] bin Laden either before he got to Afghanistan or after. Every attempt that either the Clinton administration or the Bush administration made either was unsuccessful or was pulled back before it was fully authorized. ... Communications didn't exist, so that the policemen outside couldn't communicate by radio with the firemen in the building as they were going upstairs and the building was in danger of collapse. Nobody could get to them because the radios didn't work. Shame on us that we haven't fixed that yet. And we haven't. ...
When this program airs, ... it will be five years since 9/11. Are we safer?
We're safer. But we're not safe. There are still a number of things we have to do if we really want to become safe.
Well, I can give you 10 or 11 different examples. We have to do a better job on coordinating our intelligence; they're still not talking to each other the way they ought to talk to each other. We've got to do a much better job in securing [nuclear] materials around the world; we still haven't done that to anybody's satisfaction or fast enough, certainly.
We've got to do a better job on foreign policy. As long as we're still hated around the world, it's a little hard to do a number of the things that we have to do to make peace and to make friends in the Arab world. We have to do a lot more economically, I think, to help the people where terrorism exists. I remember [Secretary of Defense] Don Rumsfeld said once in testifying to us [the 9/11 Commission], "This doesn't do any good if you're making terrorists faster than I can kill them."
Then there's a whole series -- immigration reforms, safety reforms -- things that are on the way, but they're still not there yet. ...
... Immigration: ... The concept was one agency at the border, and what we're told today is that there are at least two or three, and they're not talking to each other.
Yeah. That's the lack of coordination. ... The time when you catch a terrorist is when they travel. Terrorist[s] hunker down, and they're sort of underground, staying with cells or whatever, but at some point, if they're going to do their dirty work, they have to travel. And at the moment at which they travel, that's the time you can catch them. That's why immigration is so very, very important. ...
But our borders, particularly the Southwest borders, are out of control.
Yes, that's right. Five hundred thousand people come in illegally every year. If you're dealing with terrorism, that's just not anything you continue to allow. Now, I think there are bills in Congress ... that would do something about that problem, but we're not there yet.
You said agencies aren't talking to each other. That was one of the main things that the commission identified, right?
Yeah. We set up [John] Negroponte as [director of national intelligence] with the idea that basically he could bang heads between the 17 intelligence agencies and get them to share information, because we believe if they had shared information before 9/11, there would have been at least a chance of preventing it. To this point, having conversations with Negroponte and others, we're just starting that. ... The cultures are so deeply embedded, ... and that's got to happen. ...
... When I've spoken with people who are involved in information [sharing], or agencies that should be, they say, "Well, of course we're all sharing information."
Well, again, it's a little better. There is more sharing of information, but I don't think anybody at the top level is going to tell you they're really sharing information the way they should be. I mean, I've had lunches and conversations with people at the highest levels, and they just look at me and say, "Well, we're at the starting gate." That's the expression used: "at the starting gate."
It's five years later, and we're at the starting gate?
Yeah, and that's unacceptable.
So the work of the commission really hasn't come to fruition? ...
Not the way we'd like it to. ... There are a number of things that have happened; it's just not enough. If you look at the 41 recommendations and you look at the report card the commission issued, that hasn't changed that much. There are a lot of D's and E's and F's, and it's not the kind of report card that you'd want to bring home, if you were a child in school, to your parents.
We interviewed the recent head [John Brennan] of the National Counterterrorism Center -- something the commission recommended, right?
Yes, that's correct.
He says there's a real problem with the strategic planning and implementation of all of these different changes; that no one is really in charge.
This is something that bothers us very much, because when we talked about the changes, ... we didn't want to just move boxes around. We wanted to create something that worked. You have to have a real head of intelligence ... that had the clout ... if it had to fight with the Defense Department or with one of these intelligence agencies, that they'd have the clout to do it, supported by the president.
Now, if it's becoming another bureaucracy -- and that's our fear -- then we haven't accomplished what we want to accomplish. And America is not safer because of it. We think Mr. Negroponte is a good choice and a good man, but he needs the support of the president, really, if he's going to get his job done.
... Does he have the full support of the president?
I hope so. I hope so. ... Now that we've lost our security clearances, the only real monitors that you have are the Congress, because you can't do it in the press because it's [a classified] secret. ... The congressional committees are the only ones who really have the knowledge and have the authority to really make sure this is being done. Every congressman I've talked to, without exception, tells me that oversight is still dysfunctional. ...
... But what people on the Hill tell us is that they don't have even the same kind of oversight they used to have. They have verbal briefings; they don't take notes. And the majority on the committees aren't going to vote to really investigate what's going on. ... They say to people like me, "We look to you, the journalists, to have oversight."
Well, you see, the journalists can't do it because they don't have the information. This is a secret business; what the intelligence agents are doing is classified -- in fact, overclassified. One of the things that I discovered in my work is that about, I'd say -- and I'm not exaggerating now -- maybe 60 to 70 percent of the materials that I went over that are classified shouldn't have been.
I remember going over a whole report the FBI gave me, 300 pages, "Classified" stamps all over it. I read the whole thing, 300 pages, with an FBI guy looking over my shoulder. After I was finished I turned to him, [and] I said: "I've read all this in the press! Why is it classified?" And he looked at me and said, "But you didn't know it was true." That was his answer.
So there's a terrible overclassification. ... And then there's the secretive stuff which is only available to Congress. They're the only ones who can see it. So if they're not doing their job, nobody is doing their job, and there is no oversight. The congressmen themselves will tell you they're not able to do their job. ...
And the FBI and the CIA were not talking to each other before 9/11, and your sense is they're not today?
Not to the extent they should be. Now, at the highest levels I think there's better coordination, but there's still a long way to go. What we demanded of the FBI is that they have to give the people who are doing counterterrorism the same kind of promotions, recognition and everything else as the people who were doing the old job, J. Edgar Hoover's job, of breaking down doors and bringing people to trial.
We still don't think they're there. If you want to go into counterterrorism in the FBI, you're not in the most important part of the agency; you don't have the same chances of promotion. You're just sort of second-rate citizens. ... Now, that has got to change, and Director [Robert] Mueller is trying to change it. ... We don't believe he's making the progress that he should be making.
Since 9/11, there have been six different heads of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI.
Yeah. ... The FBI is a very discouraging subject, because we had very high hopes. We had a lot of alternatives we were looking [at] for [reform of domestic] intelligence, and Director Mueller and others convinced us we shouldn't go to any of those alternatives because the FBI could be reformed to do the job. It has not been reformed to do the job up to this day. A lot of people in the FBI think, "We're just waiting them out." ... That's the danger, as you know, with government agencies: They just simply wait out a leader who's going in a direction they don't want to go. ...
When you look at the FBI -- you remember the stories about the computer system -- ... hundreds of millions of dollars later, still no computer system.
And this was, again, one of the great disappointments. It's one of the things the FBI testified before us on, both in public and private sessions, was how wonderful this computer system was going to be and how any agency could just go there and find out about any potential terrorist anywhere in the world, and how all these millions of bits of information were going to be coordinated. It was going to be wonderful, and it turned out it didn't work.
And they're trying again with the same group of people.
... In the commission, frankly, what we believe is they ought to be working more with the private sector, because there are people who run credit card companies and so on that do this very well. If you do something wrong [on] your credit card, ... they'll find you and they'll catch you. ... Bill Clinton told me this. He said there's a company in Arkansas who could do this tomorrow.... If they can do it, then government ought to be using the private sector and not trying to do it themselves.
... When we talk to the FBI, they say they've made a lot of reforms; their agents are being assigned to counterterrorism; it is a high priority; and you just don't have the staff anymore and the ability to have access to the kind of information to see what they've done. You're out of the loop is what they say.
Well, we asked the FBI to come and talk to us, and Mueller did. So we had information directly from the FBI. ... I think we were kind to the FBI. The FBI has not done the job, and they did not do the job they told us they were going to do when they were testifying before the commission.
Has part of the problem been that's there's been no real accountability? No one got fired over 9/11. No one has been fired since then, apparently, for not performing.
Yeah, I think that's a general problem in government. It's hard to think of people who get fired in government for almost anything except sometimes for disloyalty to an administration. ... So it's a problem here, but I think it's an overall problem. Government doesn't hold people accountable the same way the private sector does. ...
... The commission ... determined that the whole thing was plotted overseas. ... There were no [witting] accomplices, apparently, here in the U.S.
No. It was interesting, because people talked about cells and sleeper cells and all of that; we didn't find any. These people came into the country to do us harm. They were welcomed, in some cases, by Muslim communities, but it was sort of helping fellow Muslims. They didn't seem to need help or introductions or what have you. They didn't seem, to the best that we could find out, to be part of a plot at all. ...
One of the officials we spoke with said that the U.S. government has become addicted to the concept of a sleeper cell; they're looking for something that really isn't here; that the strategy is wrong.
Well, it may be. It certainly wasn't there before 9/11; that we didn't find. ... We know the majority of the Al Qaeda are in other countries, and they have to get into this country in order to do us harm. That's why this travel strategy is so important, ... because once they're in this country, given the freedoms we all observe, it's very hard. ...
Well, we certainly have been successful for five years in a sense, although remember that the Al Qaeda plot on the World Trade Center took five years to develop. These people are very methodical; at least Al Qaeda is. They plan for a long time, and they look at every single contingency.
They studied us. They knew, for instance, that if you had a knife that was six inches long they could confiscate it, but if it was four inches long they couldn't. ... They flew around the country. They noticed when the pilot came out of the cockpit, how secure that cockpit door was. ... They knew what you could get through the baggage system and what you couldn't. ...
I've learned to take bin Laden and Al Qaeda seriously. When they say they want to do something, they're going to do their best to get it done. And they've said a lot since 9/11 as to what they're planning to do. ...
... Five years later, what keeps you up at night about this?
The thing that keeps me up at night more than anything else is probably the worry of a terrorist with a nuclear device in one of our major cities. ... The effect of that on our democracy, on our economy, on our way of life would be so catastrophic. ...
But when I go around ... and I say, "Is there any evidence in the last five years that any group or any individual has acquired any kind of nuclear device or even radioactive materials and attempted to bring them into the United States?," they say no.
Well, they don't have the evidence. That worries me, too, because I don't know whether they've done it yet. I know that bin Laden has said he wants to do it. ... We know that he's been trying to get a hold of these devices, and his people have been trying to get a hold of these devices. We know that in the ex-Soviet Union, there are nuclear devices and rich uranium that's guarded by rusty chains and one soldier, in many cases. ...
Once they get a hold of the enriched uranium, you can find out how to build one of these devices on the Internet. And ... if you put a lead shield over it now, the devices they now use [to detect radiation on the border], the ones they put over it won't penetrate that lead shield. So you can drive one in with a station wagon. ...
... Every six months there's the announcement about some case: The president said we've disrupted terrorist cells in Buffalo, N.Y., and Negroponte just recently testified and said, "We have evidence of Al Qaeda, ... a sleeper cell in Lodi, Calif." But when you look at these cases carefully, it doesn't look like these are people who are about to do anything.
No. That's the problem. When you say "disrupt a plot," the second thing is you look at it and say, "Was the plot real?" Frankly, you've got a lot of nuts in this country, unfortunately, who are always talking about doing this or that. The bomb threats ... are all around New York and Washington and other places. So when you say you disrupted something, you've got to say, "Is it real?" Now, without access to classified information, without really looking at what that case was, it's very hard to make that determination.
Yes, I am. ...
... When the government speaks today, it seems to include a Black Muslim prison gang as an example of imminent problems. ...
Yeah, well, I don't know why. I mean, it might be a threat; you can't say there couldn't be threats, traditional threats, from all sorts of sources within the country, going to the Haymarket explosion in Chicago back two centuries ago. We've had anarchists; we've had people trying to do harm for one reason or another.
What we're talking about here is a specific organization that's now around the world in its scope, that has announced they want to do us harm and kill as many Americans as possible; that has technology to support them and has some very intelligent people. ... That is the enemy, and that is who we're fighting, and we've got to always keep our focus on that. ...
... And then the administration has said that one of the other plots that happened was a plot involving an individual who was going to get up on the Brooklyn Bridge and cut it down with an acetylene torch. Is that an example of a terrorist plot?
Well, that seems a little far-fetched, that one. ... The American people have got to understand what's real and what's not real so that they can be part of the defense of this country. I said before, perhaps, that a local police officer may be the first one to find out about something; well, it's going to come even from an American citizen before that. You can cry wolf once too often, and then people stop paying attention. We've got to be very, very serious about what's credible and what's not credible.
... Is this the politics of fear?
It can be the politics of fear, and if it is, it's counterproductive. The American people are very sensible, and if they're armed with information, they are our best front in this war against terror, no question about it. But if they're given stuff that isn't real or stuff that doesn't seem sensible to them, then they're going to be less effective. ...
... When I talk to veteran counterterrorism officials, they say the real problem here is that it's been politicized -- use of "war on terror," "sleeper cells." It's difficult when we have to find every threat, run down every lead as if there is really an eminent attack when there isn't evidence of it.
Well, I think running down every lead is important. Now, recognize they've got a million bits of information today, and there's a lot of good people in this area that are working very hard. But when you look at the story of 9/11 and recognize that we didn't run down every lead, and there were some of those hijackers who probably could have been caught at one time or another, ... it's hard to say.
But don't you need some prioritization? You can't just run down every lead, but that's what we're still doing. We're running down every lead.
Yeah, well, you need judgment calls; there's no question about that. You need the right people in the right places to make those judgment calls. But with a million bits of information coming in, sometimes somebody gets something that they may not feel is that important, but if they shared that information with another agency, they might find putting those two pieces of information together, you've got something that's very important.
But [what] we've seen is a fear on the line: Whatever they get that looks like terrorism they immediately repeat it up the line without checking it out because they're afraid to be caught holding that hot potato.
I know, and that's a problem with government: The people don't want to have responsibility of making decisions in government, and therefore things like that happen. But there's got to be judgment calls around the line. A local policeman calls in with a piece of information; somebody's got to decide whether that information has to be checked out further, whether it doesn't make sense, whether it's credible or not credible. ...
... The commission also recognized that if someone were to stumble across a terrorist or a terrorist plot in America, it's likely to be local law enforcement, right?
That's correct, because there are so many more of them. And that happened, again, before 9/11: Local law enforcement people found some of the terrorists, reported things in, and of course they didn't go anywhere, their reports. We believe that the coordination -- and that's got to exist between federal authorities, particularly the FBI, and local state police and local police and even sheriff's departments -- has got to be there. ...
Five years after 9/11, and we still don't have that coordination, that flow of information?
It's better, ... but it's still not the way it should be. There is still a lack of trust between the federal authorities and local authorities, and that's got to end. People at the local level are not second-rate. A lot of them are real professionals, and then they've got to be dealt with as real professionals. ...
... So you support this beefing up of local intelligence operations, counterterrorism operations, in New York or Los Angeles?
Well, New York in some ways is doing a better job than the federal government is. New York, because they get so frustrated with the federal government, now have almost got their own international feelers out. I mean, they talk to other governments. They've got a very, very good operation in New York right now, one that other cities could emulate. ...
But ... what federal agencies say is that this results in even more stovepipes, more people in charge of their own operations and less coordination.
Well, again, I believe that people in New York only go on their own when they don't feel they've got the support or the help from the federal agencies. This is being done because they feel there's a lack of trust or a lack of coordination with the feds. If that feeling can be ended, then I think New York would be comfortable in leaving the whole thing to the federal government.
So it's Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the New York Police Department, some other police departments around the country, intelligence agencies -- and now the Pentagon seems to be involved, not only in counterterrorism overseas, ... but now they're gathering information here at home.
That bothers me. They should not be gathering information at home, I don't believe. The Pentagon is an agency designed to defend the country and defend it abroad and as a military organization. I don't think that's their job; their job is not to spy on American citizens. ... That's my own personal belief now. I'm not talking for the commission.
They say they have to develop information because their job is to protect submarine bases and bases all over the country -- Norfolk, Va.; Seattle -- and it appears that they don't feel they're getting enough information.
Well, then they should be making that public. They should be saying that the FBI or whoever it is -- the other 17 agencies -- are not doing their job and why they're not doing their job. ... You've got to protect our civil liberties along here at some point. ...
... The Department of Homeland Security was proposed as an idea. The administration opposed it; then a number of months later it said: "Oh, it's a good idea. We're going to do it." The Counterterrorism [Center] was something that the families were lobbying for; the administration opposed it, and then it decided, "We'll go along with it." But both seemed to have had flawed endings. ... Is it possible that these were just political maneuvers?
No, I don't think [so]. Again, we haven't reached the end yet. It takes a while for government to put things together. I haven't given up at all on the director of national intelligence or the Counterterrorism Center. That's still the right idea. It's got to work, and it's got to have everybody, including the president of the United States, trying to make it work. Homeland Security is a different question. That's a very difficult department. I think it has good parts to it. We're making some progress, but it's very slow to get government agencies to work together.
The [9/11] families -- your job came about because the families were pushing [for] it. ... Are they satisfied?
Some of them are; some of them aren't. Most of them are very much with us. The largest family organization we're still working with is the Voices of September 11. They're wonderful people. They've taken their own tragedy and tried to turn it into something to benefit other families in the future and to benefit the country. I talk to them periodically; I try to help them where I can. They're still hanging together. They're still trying to get their recommendations passed.
... Is the problem that you don't have the right backing in the White House, because they're not focused on this as a priority?
I think they've been distracted by a whole number of things. They're fighting two wars -- one in Baghdad and the other in Afghanistan -- in addition to this terrorism emphasis. They get distracted by everything from Supreme Court nominations to scandals, and it takes their eye off the ball. ... Bill Clinton and George Bush both had some very good people who understood the threat of Al Qaeda, but it wasn't very high on the priority table, and so it never really got put up to the top. I think some of the same thing is going on now. These are not people who don't understand what's going on; they're not people who don't say these things ought to be done. But it's not at the top of their priority list. ...
But the people in the bureaucracy -- the leadership of the counterterrorism bureaucracy -- say, when you can get them alone and talking in an unclassified situation, that it's not politically pragmatic right now. ... Today there are other political priorities -- as long as there's not another attack.
Well, that's the problem. I said at one point to Congress -- and they didn't like it very much: "You're going to pass every one of our 41 recommendations. The question is if you do it before or after another terrorist attack." I believe that, because if there's another terrorist attack, there's going to be, again, all sorts of blame. All our recommendations are going to go rush through Congress, probably a whole bunch of other stuff rushed through Congress which may be unthoughtful and unhelpful, to meet a political priority.
But the safety of the American people is the number one job of government. Government is defined that way; that's why government was formed. If that's not at the top of the priority list, then what is? ... If government isn't putting that up front, then government is not doing its job.
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