Fran Townsend: “In a Post-9/11 World We Weren’t Going to Be So Prissy”
September 6, 2011, 4:54 pm ET
A former mob prosecutor, Townsend worked in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations — as a deputy to Attorney General Janet Reno (1995-98), as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (1998-2001) and homeland security adviser (2004-07). She was deeply involved in creating the director of national intelligence position after it was recommended by the 9/11 commission, and while serving in the Clinton administration, she drafted a “wish list” of national intelligence legal authorities — many of which were implemented by the Bush administration after 9/11. Now in the private sector, Townsend questions what kind of return we’re getting on the investment we’ve made in homeland security over the last 10 years. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2011.
There’s a lot written about [a Somali threat to disrupt Obama's inauguration]. Did they have to take that story seriously?
They had to. Look, you’re looking for, are there pieces of intelligence that sort of build on one another? Is there a story that is not unrelated pieces, but actually pieces that can be related to one another, whether it’s through sourcing, it’s because of the group it’s coming from, the location, the kind of intelligence.
There was enough there that you understood, even if it turned out later not to be real, they had an obligation to take it seriously. …
“In a post-9/11 world, we weren’t going to be so prissy. … No matter how difficult or undesirable it was, we were going to do what we needed to do to get the information we needed to protect the American people.”
Obama and the people around him, when he was running for office, ran on the idea of less secrecy, against Guantanamo, on the idea that maybe there was too much domestic surveillance and such. … When they get into office, … what do you see them do?
I like to tell people, there are three points in what I’ll call the maturing of a president. Every president, Republican, Democrat, every single one of them I think goes through three phases. There’s the president when he’s campaigning. He’s a politician. It’s not that he’s untruthful, but he takes a much more idealistic view of the role of the president and what he is going to bring to that role.
Then there’s what I call second stage, sitting behind the big desk and feeling the burden of responsibility of that office. …
And then it’s making those decisions and having to both explain them and advocate your policy positions and persuading the American people. It’s the leading part. It’s the courage to lead. Sometimes that third stage is completely inconsistent with the idealistic first stage, and the president has to live [through] that and matures through it to understand that.
A good example: Guantanamo. President Obama had, before he was President Obama, when they were campaigning, had an extraordinary legal team, sort of a small cell of legal people who had worked in higher Democratic administrations who were thinking about these issues — Jamie Gorelick, the former deputy attorney general; Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor; Greg Craig, who ultimately became White House counsel. And they would sit down with very senior people from the Bush administration — this is before the transition — and talk about issues like Guantanamo.
It’s funny, because you can imagine the people from the Bush administration saying: “Look, President Bush wanted to close Guantanamo, too. It’s not that we weren’t sincere. It’s that you’re going to find it’s not so easy. So be cautious about what advice you give the new president in the early days.”
And there’s a natural tendency, right, if you’re the new people, you have a mandate. You feel like you’re going to come in and change everything. …
So I can remember Inauguration Day, or I guess it was that week after the inauguration, and one of the first acts on television is President Obama sitting in the Oval Office at the president’s desk signing the executive order that he’s going to close Guantanamo. And I cringed for him, because I thought they’re going to realize we weren’t just saying that. We would have done it. It’s just hard. And they’re going to find it’s not so easy.
So I was not the least bit surprised that the year passes and the president finds himself in a position where they can’t close Guantanamo.
Beyond Guantanamo, there were a lot of other issues. They seemed to be much more aggressive in their use of drones. They’ve been very aggressive when it comes to leaks and security and secrecy involved in issues around homeland security. What brought them to the decisions they had, and what were their positions? And how did they differ from the previous administration?
I think President Obama ran on [the idea that] he would do things very differently. He comes into office, feels the burden of the office, is persuaded in by and large the legality of many of the actions and the effectiveness of them by career people who have been in the system, who worked for presidents, regardless of whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. …
So the drone program is a good example. I think he was persuaded this was both legal and effective, and he was going to increase the use of it. And he did so, frankly, very effectively.
And you weren’t surprised?
No, I wasn’t. This is one of those — I think you realize that positions that are taken during a political campaign, when you get inside and you’re confronted and responsible for solving the problem, smart people can be persuaded. And I think President Obama was persuaded. …
To the extent some things are pure policy that are influenced by your point of view, your philosophical view of the world, you may not be persuaded. But on a security issue — one of the reasons I loved working in this area was sure, there’s some politics played at the edges of it, but by and large, nobody wants to see anything blow up in the United States. Nobody wants that to happen on their watch. And if it’s legal and effective, they’re going to do it regardless of what party they’re from.
So I was not surprised that the president was by and large persuaded by some of the most effective tools we had, drones being one of them.
… Some people say, even in the first day of the administration, [with the report of the Somali threat against the president], they went through an experience which in fact to some extent had ramifications in the way they viewed the seriousness of what they had to do. What’s your take on that?
I’m not sure I think his view is only impacted by the transition he had to go through. The president begins to get a daily intelligence brief, so there’s a period of time during the transition where he’s beginning to see exactly what the prior president has seen every day and understand what he’s dealing with. While rhetorically in political speeches you may accuse people of trying to scare Americans, you now begin to realize what’s behind the rhetoric. What is it that President Bush was alluding to when he wanted Americans to focus on the threat? …
He’s been living with, early, getting protective detail. He then gets elected, and he begins to get the intelligence brief. He begins to see the substance behind the inner workings of government. I think all of that, including what he had to go through in terms of a security briefing for the inauguration, influences then how he sees the threat and his own responsibility.
So it’s been 10 years. Homeland security, the system around it changed dramatically within that period of time. Can you talk a bit about how this growth has happened, what we now have? …
I think in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the country was in crisis, so what you wanted to do was build an organization that literally was dedicated to the mission of keeping the homeland safe so that we could ensure nothing like this ever happened again. I understand that.
Ten years later, we’re in a period of financial crisis. Regrettably the threat hasn’t gone away, so you can’t just walk away from your security investments.
You know, it’s funny. I’m in the private sector now. My question is, what’s the return on my investment? To me, prevention is the greatest investment and resiliency. Those are the two greatest investments. That’s what we’ve learned in the 10 years. So what does that mean?
It means, do not take money from your intelligence community. Your intelligence community produces the information to focus all the other resources. Whether it’s military, law enforcement, any of it, it’s all leveraged off your intelligence community. So that’s a good investment. That’s not one you want to cut.
On the other hand, I look at DHS, and you say to yourself, 10 years later, Americans, we still can’t take 3 ounces on [airplanes], and we’re taking off our shoes. And all of these things go to threats we’ve seen in the past. And the answer is, this is a country made great by innovation. There’s got to be a way that I don’t have to take my shoes off still, and there’s got to be a way that I can take 3 ounces on. But once you put a rule or regulation in place, it’s almost impossible to kill it, because everybody then walks away and moves on to the next threat.
I understand the American people get frustrated with that. … That’s where I think we lose credibility with the American people. And so going through scanners, going through metal detectors and these pat-downs and searches, if we don’t talk to the American people about what the threat is and why we’re asking them to do things, our government loses its credibility. So I always feel bad for the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] screeners, but it’s not their fault. This is an inefficient bureaucracy that needs to push itself to do better and earn back the trust and respect of the American people. There’s lots of those kinds of examples.
But I do think intelligence, the FBI, law enforcement, those are the places where if we can prevent an attack, you want to keep those investments, but minimize the burden on the American people.
… What was the impetus behind the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and what’s your review of how it succeeded or not?
What went into DHS I think now looking back was a function of a chaotic legislative process. Congress was pushing for this. The White House [had] to be persuaded, came onboard. And everybody thought you’re only going to get one bite of this apple in terms of getting Congress and the administration to get on the same page about what should go in it, so they went very big. They put in a lot of things.
And in retrospect, I ask myself the question, what were we really trying to achieve? It seems to me what we really cared about was the screening of people and things coming across our borders and getting better at that. But that suggests a much more modest Department of Homeland Security focused on border security, bringing all those elements together. We’ve brought in a lot more than that.
And I think the size of it, the size of the sort of amalgamation of things you were trying to pull together made it very difficult to achieve sort of the efficiencies. And I think it’s still a work in progress. I think it’s much better now, but I think it was slower to come together than one might have hoped.
DNI [Director of National Intelligence] was another one of the big thoughts of pulling it together to connect the dots. Can you take us a little bit into the politics of that? …
This is one in which I was driving the truck. The DNI, the notion of intelligence reform, for better or worse — I’m not sure I’m not volunteering for blame here — that was really one that I sort of shepherded through the process after the 9/11 Commission came out with their report.
Here was the problem: You had a Director of Central Intelligence [DCI] traditionally who had two full-time jobs. He had to run the CIA in their covert and clandestine operations, including what we now know to be the drone program, and he was responsible for running the entire 16 agencies of the intelligence community. When I say running it, I mean setting standards, looking at the budget, working with the military, because much of that budget is classified.
So if you had the choice of looking at budget numbers and balance sheets or running the covert operations of a CIA, I suspect you, like I, would choose to run the covert operations, which is a lot more fun. So this integration of our intelligence community always was kind of a stepchild.
So the thinking of intelligence reform, the creation of the DNI, was not a big staff. It was having someone who was responsible for what I call enterprise management looking across the intelligence community: Are we sort of putting resources form different budgets against the same problem and not spending wisely? Can we have a single manager for the different kinds of intelligence we collect — human intelligence, technical intelligence, electronic — and work across the agencies to leverage the available resources? That was the idea.
But to do that effectively, if you want to give someone that responsibility, you’ve got to then give them the tools. They need personnel authority and budget authority.
And this is where we wound up with some pretty strong — it was a country at war. We were in two theaters, Iraq and Afghanistan, at the time. The secretary of defense had tremendous intelligence requirements and was not anxious to lose power, direct authority over the intelligence assets in the Department of Defense. So, understandably from a bureaucratic perspective, he felt very strongly and fought very hard not to lose that authority.
So what happens is we do create a DNI, but it’s a DNI with limited personnel authority. He has the ability to pass on the heads of each of those 16 intelligence components, but not really the ability to fire, because each of those is a presidential appointee. He can offer an opinion on budgets, but he’s got no ability to make a budget decision.
And so the DNI is challenged from the start. And when we wind up with the legislation, President Bush understands very well what that means is, because he doesn’t have actual authority, what he’s going to need is a relationship with the president. But the only way he’s going to be able to get anything done is by virtue of his access and relationship to the president.
So the president decides that the DNI will be the person to come in every day, to give the daily brief. To tell you that this causes anxiety and unhappiness at the CIA is an understatement. And I’m not sure now looking back that I disagree with him. I think that’s probably right.
Here’s the problem: In order to do the president’s daily brief takes a tremendous amount of time in preparation, in reading and getting ready. It comes with a briefer, but whether it’s the briefer comes with the director of the CIA or the DNI, one of those two people is going to spend a lot of time with that briefer getting ready.
And then when you walk out, you’re not done. The president and his staff will have had questions. I can tell you because I was in those briefs. Now you’ve got to go back and get all those questions answered. So it’s a huge amount of time.
President Bush did it, and I think it was right, because it was the only way to make sure the DNI had power. But it was an imperfect solution. And so what you began to see was personality mattered; access to the president mattered. So we see the pairings of the CIA director and the DNI. Sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. And that’s because personalities and relationship to the president matter more than you’d like them to.
And in the end, the effectiveness overall of the new bureaucracy?
I share the view that the bureaucracy has at most times been too big in the DNI. I will tell you, Condi Rice, when she was national security advisor, and I worked very hard — a large bureaucracy was never at least our intention when we were putting the legislature together with Congress. It’s more and less effective depending on the personalities of the people in those positions and the secretary of defense.
It worked a lot better when Bob Gates was secretary of defense than it worked when Don Rumsfeld was secretary of defense, because Bob Gates, having been opposed, by the way, when he was in the private sector to the creation of DNI, once it was legislation passed and it needed to be implemented and it came back to government, was incredibly supportive of making sure it worked. …
When you look at the fusion centers and the growth of the use of the cops on the street to sort of pull in information and then redirect it to Washington in case [of] a necessary license plate analysis, cop cars going around picking up every license plate and putting it into central bank — dangers? Necessity?
Look, I understand people’s concern about the government scooping up vast amounts of information. But one, having been on the inside, I can tell you, unfortunately our ability to then actually turn large amounts of information into usable intelligence is not very good. It’s not where it needs to be. So there was bound to be a period of time where you were struggling with, how much do you want to collect? What’s most useful? And then what are you going to do with it? So you’ve seen over the last 10 years people inside the government struggling with that issue.
The second piece to this is, I think the government had an obligation — I know we tried during the Bush administration; I presume the same is true of the Obama administration — you’ve got to put rules in place about if you’re going to start getting the legal authorities straight to be able to collect more, what are going to be the rules. There’s a lot of oversight in the Patriot Act in terms of all those authorities. Now, is it adequately executed, the oversight? No, not always. But there’s real reporting there.
In the DNI legislation, there was the creation of the president’s Privacy and Civil Liberties [Oversight] Board envisioned in that, bipartisan, chair and vice chair, presidential appointees, Senate-confirmed; was that this would be a resource that when you were going to put new programs in place, this is a board you could go to that you could present the program and say, “What kinds of privacy protections should we have in place?”
Now, all the best intentions — let’s talk about how things, even well intentioned, go awry. We saw the inspector general from the Justice Department’s report on the FBI’s National Security Letters [PDF]. Even his investigation, there was no demonstrated abuse of those authorities, but the justification for using these letters wasn’t in place. It had been misused in some circumstances. Follow-up hadn’t been there. And very damaging.
And I will tell you, I didn’t see President Bush get angry often, but having fought so hard for the Patriot Act, and finding those authorities to be so critical to the FBI’s success, he was angry that the system over at the FBI failed to execute that in a responsible way and directed the FBI director to make sure we fix that. …
How did he show his anger, the president?
The president was quite direct with both the FBI director and the attorney general, who was Al Gonzales at the time, and called them in and had a conversation with them about it’s unacceptable; I don’t understand how this could happen; it must be fixed; we’ve got to re-establish our credibility both with Congress now and with the American people, because the Patriot Act is too important; we can’t risk losing these authorities on this. This is kind of — as they’d say in soccer, it’s an own goal, right? We hurt ourselves here. It was unnecessary.
And so the president directed the FBI director to fix it.
It’s very difficult to evaluate how all these operations, the DHS, the DNI, NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center] are doing in trying to connect all the dots, trying to bring in all this fire hose of information and then analyzing it. … Some people point to the Christmas bomber incident [attempted by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] as showing a flaw; that the fact is that in the end, it’s very difficult still, even with this system, to connect the dots. So when you look at the “underwear bomber” story, what do you think happened, and how do you evaluate it?
Look, I think the Christmas Day bomber points out how hard it is to connect them, even when you’ve got lots of information. We also learned, though, that the information sharing wasn’t perfect even then, right?
I can remember during the transition, I was out of government and was talking to the new team at the White House and said, “Information sharing is an issue; you will have to work every single day,” to which you sort of got: “How can that be? It’s ridiculous. How could that be?”
It’s an issue that requires presidential leadership every single day. It’s why during the Bush administration we issued a presidential strategy on information sharing, because we knew unless he directed it, it wasn’t going to happen. There’s no excuse for that. …
And it’s not malevolent. It’s just people in their own silos, doing their own work under their own legal authorities, not thinking about, “Oh, by the way, Joe over at this other agency could use this.”
So to this day, 10 years later, it still requires White House pushing and prodding and ensuring that that’s happening. And I think that’s what you saw on the Christmas Day bomber.
But that was what the bureaucracy of the NCTC and DNI was all supposed to protect. And in the end, the thing that prevented disaster there was a citizen jumping on the guy. What does that say? What’s the lessons learned from that?
Look, I don’t have any doubt, when I look at the NCTC information sharing, that it’s better. It’s certainly far better than anything we had prior to Sept. 11. But it’s an imperfect system. Mostly NCTC still suffers from all this information comes in individual pipes, and then it requires humans using technology to try and connect those dots. And you know, people make mistakes. Yes, we’re vulnerable. …
And also, by the way, talking about Christmas Day, talking about the individual who tried to put the bombs in their computer cartridges, we got the tracking number from the head of Saudi intelligence. Without that tracking number, there’s no amount of U.S. intelligence that could have ever found that cartridge. And by the way, with the tracking number they almost couldn’t find it.
So the fact that we have strong bilateral intelligence-sharing relationships is key. No one of these things is going to stop the next attack. It’s a little bit of a shock approach. You’re hoping one of your tools is the tool that hits to help prevent it. But no one of those tools is foolproof, and we need to understand it.
That’s why earlier I said there are two pieces, but one of them is resilience. It’s not just prevention; it’s resilience, the maturity to understand, trying real hard, working real hard, you may not be able to prevent the next one. So your greatest weapon is resilience, the fact that you can absorb it and keep moving and get systems back up and running and keep going. It doesn’t mean there’s not going to be political fallout to it, but it means as a country, as an economy, as a society, we get back up, and we’re going to keep moving, and they’re not going to defeat us.
In the very beginning the vice president [Dick Cheney] is talking about the “dark side,” that we would have to go on the dark side to fight this to some extent. What signals were the CIA and the FBI getting in the very early days about how this war was going to be different? … What was the message being sent down from the administration?
… It was very clear: Don’t not ask for something you need. In other words, agencies tend to naturally in the process, having grown up in the federal government, to self-censor. “Well, I’m not going to ask for that because I can’t get that. I’m not going to ask for this legal authority.”
I can tell you when I was still at the Justice Department — I left the Justice Department in mid-2001. I knew there was an election in November; there was going to be a transition to the Bush administration. And six months before that — we’re talking about September 2000 — I had started a process in the Justice Department looking at national security intelligence legal authorities, things we didn’t have, but your wish list, because a new administration would come in and say, “What are the kinds of things you would do differently?” So I wanted to be prepared.
Much of that work I obviously had no idea that [in] a year, in September 2001, we’d be attacked. But much of that legal thinking that had been done was started then when I was there and becomes the Patriot Act. It’s the sort of thing, roving surveillance capability and the Pfizer Act and the kind of additional legal authorities and National Security Letters and all those sorts of things you never asked for before because people wouldn’t be comfortable. “Why did you need that? We haven’t been attacked.”
So the message post-9/11 basically was: “What are the authorities you need? Let the political people, let the policy people fight the battle on Capitol Hill. Let us find the allies and constituencies up on Capitol Hill to get you that. Don’t self-censor. Don’t assume you can’t get it. Now is the time. We can get what we need.”
So I think by and large it was also true when it came to budgets. The intelligence community, their budget had been very severely cut after the end of the Cold War. What do you need to increase your capability for collection? How do we increase the number of case officers that we can put in the field to get us the intelligence we need to target, whether that’s militarily or diplomatically or law enforcement?
So in a post-9/11 world it was: “Don’t self-censor. Don’t self-censor about what legal authorities you need. Don’t self-censor about budget. Talk to us about what’s the capability, and then we’ll decide from that menu of ‘asks’ what are the things that the administration wants to go and get because they think it will be most effective.”
When Cofer Black, [former director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center], testifies before Congress and he says, “All you need to know is there was a pre-9/11 and there’s a post-9/11, and now the gloves are off,” when you heard that, what did you think he meant, and how did it define a different sort of world that we live in?
Cofer and I worked as colleagues. I understood that to mean there was no end [of] the earth we weren’t willing to go to. There was nothing we weren’t willing to ask for. There was nobody we wouldn’t work with. And you know, in a time of peace, there are things you just don’t want to have to do. You don’t want to have to work with certain allies because you disagree with them on a host of things. In a post-9/11 world, we weren’t going to be so prissy. We were going to work with and do what we needed to do. No matter how difficult or undesirable it was, we were going to do what we needed to do to get the information we needed to protect the American people. …
One of the things — “When the gloves are off” — one of the tools he used was extraordinary rendition,” and that became a big issue and big part of the debate for many years. What was the thinking at that point about the need for that step?
This is a big misconception with the American people. Extraordinary rendition had nothing to do with 9/11. Extraordinary rendition was enforced, being quite aggressively used during the Clinton administration, long before 9/11 ever happened. It does become a public debate post-9/11, where it becomes more widely understood.
But this was more or less the use of an immigration authority for a counterterrorism purpose. That is, you get somebody in custody, and you have the ability to return him to either his country of birth or to an allied state who has an interest in him. When I say an allied state, [I mean] another cooperative intelligence service. So it’s just another way of moving people around. It wasn’t thought of, at the time at least, in the way that I think it’s come to be thought of now.
I can remember during the Clinton administration people being moved to some place like Egypt and there being concern about human rights. And so literally instructions [were] being sent to the station to say, “You’ve got to go to the service and give them the speech [saying that] an individual can’t be abused in violation of the Human Rights Convention.”
There was actually some real thought given to rendition and how it was handled, and that it was done lawfully.
And why was it an important tool post-9/11?
There’s no question that people understand in this country, in the United States, that there are legal protections related to due process and the Constitution [and] our court systems and how you’re treated that you don’t get in other parts of the world. …
Are there individuals who decided midflight that they wanted to cooperate with the United States government and be taken to the United States? Yes. And that’s the effect. The effect is oftentimes you would get information whether you were in-flight and still going to some other country, or you were in-flight and somebody decided that they would cooperate and you cut a deal to bring them to the United States, yes. And so all of those are part of the tools of how you gather information that you can put together with other intelligence to try and protect the American people.
Dana Priest was working on this for The Washington Post at that time. Can you take us into sort of a description of the way Dana’s work on rendition, on “black sites” and everything, was viewed by the White House?
The United States would not have been as successful as it was against our enemies post-9/11 if we didn’t have cooperative intelligence relationships. And when I say cooperative intelligence relationships, these are often with services in other parts of the world where we don’t share their cultural or religious values. We certainly don’t approve of their human rights standards. We had allies and cooperative relationships with people that you wouldn’t want to take home to dinner; I wouldn’t want them in my house. On the other hand, I couldn’t be successful if they didn’t help me.
So in the intelligence world there’s a lot of gray. This is a part of the government and a part of the policy world that is often not black or white. You have to make peace with yourself to deal in the gray. So while we had the legal authority to move people, we often had relationships that permitted us in the area of renditions, as Dana later wrote, that we had these facilities around the world.
I’m not going to talk about where; I know much has been written about it. I continue to have an obligation to the U.S. government. But I will tell you, imagine that we have relationships around the world, and all of a sudden they’re going to be publicly revealed. Oftentimes in those governments, these cooperative relationships were not known to Cabinet officials, to parliaments and congresses. It put friendly governments at tremendous political risk.
Having said that we would keep the secret, [we] now find ourselves sort of frantically, before it comes out in the press, we’re apologizing; we’re alerting these governments; we’re trying to shut down sites. We want to move people. There are U.S. national security concerns because we have personnel deployed. There are U.S. national security concerns because we have bad people that we can’t release, but we have to move them quickly. There are diplomatic and allied relationships that are going to be put at risk because the secret is now going to be betrayed that could cause political harm to allies who have worked with us cooperatively.
So, quite frankly, there was anger, and there was real concern that the revelations that Dana had — and there was a real effort put forth to persuade them not to make that public. …
And your overview now, afterward, sort of the outcome of it all, positive, negative?
We had to live through the immediate aftermath, and the immediate aftermath was not insubstantial. In the end I can remember … the president gave the speech. You know, this is one of these, you’re going to take lemons and you’re going to make lemonade. So the president walked into the residence, the White House, and gave a big speech and said, “We’ve transferred these people, and they’re now at Guantanamo.”
I can remember talking to some of the victims’ families from the Cole bombing, and [there was] a real sense of satisfaction that we at least now know where they are. They’re going to face justice, even if it is military commissions.
And so in terms from the U.S. perspective, I can remember sitting there, just a couple of rows back, listening to the president and being really proud of him. It may not have been the timing of our choice, it may not have been exactly how we would have done it, but we were going to get there. … I think he did the right thing. And I frankly sat there and felt tremendous pride in him for the way he handled it. …
In the end, our relations with a lot of these countries stayed pretty stable because of a need each of us had for the other, and it opened up to the public a better understanding of the realities of the war.
Right. I think it is true to say in the end we got our way through it, right, and the relationships survived.
But what you don’t have the benefit of seeing is what I was dealing with on the inside, right, on the classified world, which is the disruption. Make no mistake: There was disruption. It wasn’t easy or smooth or good for a period of time. And we had to get through that to get to the point where the relationship stabilizes, [and] we both recognize a continued mutual interest and need, and we get things up and running.
But make no mistake: We had to deal with and live with a period of real disruption in the information sharing between intelligence services.
Finally, 10 years on, your assessment about how things have changed, your biggest concerns, and your overview of where we were and where we’ve come to.
I think we’ve gotten to a good place, but I don’t think that means that there’s not more work to be done.
My biggest fear, frankly, is complacency. Bin Laden’s dead — you know, great. But the threat is real. And Americans, we tend to be really optimistic, really hopeful, and we want to look forward and not back. And I think this was such a sorrowful, sad chapter, sad moment in American life. It just isn’t in our psyche to want to dwell on it. I’m not suggesting we should.
I fear that our optimism will cause us to forget the very hard, painful lesson we learned post-9/11. We can’t diminish our investments on the security side, but we can get better at it. … The American people ought to push their government to get better at it. They’re right to be concerned and to continue to raise the concern of privacy and civil liberties, because the government can do better, and it must do better. …
I think the government’s got to focus on the really big, hard problems nobody else will, and that’s really — I hate to use the phrase WMD [weapons of mass destruction], because it has all sorts of negative connotations — but biological, chemical, radiological and nuclear, that’s a real threat. You don’t need a big attack. It doesn’t have to be horribly successful to cause deaths and have huge economic impact. …
And we have to be willing to continue to help other governments around the world build their own counterterrorism capability, because if they don’t have it, we wind up fighting the fight.
Look at what’s going on in Yemen. They don’t have much of a counterterrorism capability, and as a result, you’ve got all sorts of U.S. resources and assets in there now trying to fight the fight for them. It’s also true in the tribal areas [in Pakistan]. It’s true in Somalia. It’s true in the Mauritania border. You’ve got to build local, organic counterterrorism capability, or you’d better expect you’re going to have to go there yourself.
It’s not an easy argument to make in a tough financial climate, but I think those are the investments you’ve got to continue to make.
And we still have this enormous amount of bureaucracies that have been set up, the DHS and the DNI and the thousands of contractors, spending more than a trillion dollars on this structure. And it’s not going to go away. I think [retired CIA Director] Gen. [Michael] Hayden told me, “Once you build bureaucracy, it’s almost impossible”–
— “to kill it.
Where are we when it comes to all that?
I think it’s absolutely true to say once you build something it’s almost impossible to destroy it. But I think that the financial condition of this country is so serious, we are going to have to become a more disciplined nation when we look at return on investment. Are we satisfied that we get a return on the investment for not just the Department of Homeland Security? That’s several hundred thousand people. You’ve got to look at what you’re getting by individual business units. It requires a diligence and level of attention that we’ve not seen from Congress, right? It really requires being smart about how you go about things.
So look, I give Secretary Gates lots of credit. He started the process over at DoD, and there are no bigger sacred cows than the Pentagon, right? So if it can be done there in a thoughtful way, then it can be done across the federal government. And it’s going to have to be.
You also have to understand that it’s most likely, if there is a threat inside the United States, the first contact with a government official is going to likely be at the state and local level, not at the federal level, so you’ve got to learn how to work that relationship. It’s always been a struggle for the federal government, but you’ve got to leverage that. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of policemen across this country that are out there who have contact in these communities, and you’ve got to learn how to better use that relationship to extend your reach inside the United States. And that’s a place where there’s still a lot of work to be done.
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