“Nobody pays any attention to these reports. But you still keep printing them.”
The quote is from a prominent (former) intelligence official. He was talking about the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. But he could have been referring to the “Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report” released last week (available at this link: http://bipartisanpolicy.org/library/report/rising-terrorist-threat-9-11-commission)
One wishes to be fair to the people who wrote the Reflections. No doubt it was as well intentioned as any sequel. But in my opinion it doesn’t come anywhere close to being a worthwhile read. The assertions and arguments in Reflections are as fatigued as the authors claim the America people are.
And that’s unfortunate.
The Commission missed an opportunity to help reinvigorate the homeland security project they were instrumental in shaping.
The 9/11 Commission Report (available here: http://www.9-11commission.gov/report/) starts with the most memorable sentence of any government report I’ve ever read:
“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the Eastern United States.”
Here’s the opening sentence in Reflections:
“With temperatures in the low 50s, April 15, 2013, promised to be an almost ideal day for the 23,000 runners competing in the 117th Boston Marathon.”
This artless effort to draw a parallel between the Boston Marathon and the September 11 2001 attacks comes off sounding, at best, tone deaf. At worse, offensive.
But it’s only the start.
Instead of the thoughtfulness, balance, and bipartisanship of the original 9/11 Commission Report, we get a repetitive rehash of banal assertions: The terrorists are coming and they are really dangerous. Cyber threats are growing and they also are really dangerous. Congress is dangerous too. Their refusal to reduce the number of homeland security oversight committees is making the country less safe.
And by the way, the Director of National Intelligence (not dangerous) should control the budget of the Intelligence Community.
Unlike the hundreds of thorough and informative endnotes supporting the claims in the 9/11 Commission Report, Reflections backs up its assertions with a handful of anecdotes, a few charts, some quotes from unnamed experts and eight seemingly haphazardous endnotes.
The 9/11 Commission Report did not shy away from discussing at length alternative interpretations of “facts” they uncovered. See, for example, the extensive discussion of the intelligence wall.
That balance and realism is missing in Reflections on every significant issue discussed.
Is there no credible argument that the nation continues to overblow the terrorist threat? How about this one: http://www.amazon.com/Terror-Security-Money-Balancing-Benefits/dp/0199795762
Assuming the nation will not take the cyber threat seriously until we have a cyber version of the 9/11/01 attack, what can we do now to mitigate that attack?
Is there a case for having 92 congressional committees looking at homeland security issues? Are all those committees unnecessary? Did Reflections speak with anyone who defends the current congressional oversight structure? Could it be an example of the messiness that is republican democracy? Is DoD really the efficiency model to be emulated by homeland security? Are there no substantial downsides to having only a handful of committees looking at Defense matters?
I appreciate this was not supposed to be another 9/11 Commission Report. But I’m guessing – hoping? – it was supposed to be a serious analysis.
The commission members were “struck by how dramatically the world has changed” in a decade.
Struck? When was the last time a decade went by without dramatic world changes?
What about the current terrorist threat? It’s evolving, says Reflections.
“The forces of Islamist extremism in the Middle East are stronger than in the last decade…. The absence of another 9/11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone: As 9/11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack.”
Reflections continues to press the importance of connecting dots, even if one has to wait years. They ask,
Is the April 2013 rifle attack on an electrical substation in Metcalf, California, a harbinger of a more concerted assault on the national electrical grid or another component of critical infrastructure? What might we be missing today that, three years from now, will prove to have been a signal, a piece of a larger mosaic?
What if it’s not? Or is this report only reflecting things to be afraid of?
If you stop reading after the first two dozen pages of Reflections you’d think the nation is hanging by an existential thread, worse off now then it was ten years ago.
You have to get to page 25 of the 44 page report before learning:
There is no doubt that the country is better equipped to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks than in 2001. …The mass-casualty attacks many feared in the wake of 9/11 did not materialize. Today, in large part because of … many [security-related] reforms, the United States is a much harder target.
Senior leaders agree that America’s layered approach to homeland defense, which recognizes that no single security measure is foolproof, has improved our security…. At its best, a layered system integrates the capabilities of federal, state, and local government agencies. America’s resilience has improved as well. Federal, state, and local authorities have absorbed and applied the lessons of 9/11 over the last decade…. The country must continue to prepare for the unforeseen, but it appears to be moving in the right direction….
I think that’s called “burying the lede.”
There is a consensus among the senior officials with whom we spoke that information-sharing has improved significantly since 9/11.
And right before Reflections concludes (page 37):
As we reflect on the last ten years, we believe the government’s record in counterterrorism is good. Our capabilities are much improved, while institutional vigilance and imagination are both far better than before 9/11. Good people in government have absorbed the lessons of the 9/11 attacks, are tracking the evolving threat, and are thinking one step ahead in order to prevent the next attack.
Lest one think that gives us permission to be complacent, Reflections ends with this less-than-upbeat anecdote:
One former senior national security leader told us recently that he expects that his children and grandchildren will be carrying on this fight.
I wonder if there is another former senior national security leader, somewhere, who thinks about his children and grandchildren the way John Adams did:
I must study … war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
If there are any such national security leaders, they were not interviewed for Reflections.
Young Americans need to know that terrorism is not going away. And they need to know that many of our military personnel, intelligence officers, and diplomats on the front lines in the most dangerous parts of the world are like them—young people with dreams of bright futures.
In addition to the full court press strategy (that includes a congratulations-9/11-Commission youtube video from tired-looking President Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIA2iiWkvKY), how are young Americans and the rest of the nation to learn “how dramatically the word has changed?”
It’s simple, says Reflections.
Senior leaders, including the President, have to make the case about terrorism and cyber threats and all the myriad things that go (or might go) bump in the night “in specific terms, not generalities.”
One hoped Reflections would model some of the transparent specificity they want others to provide. Instead, what we get are statements like this one:
“If the American people hear what we have heard in recent months, about the urgent [cyber] threat and the ways in which data collection is used to counter it, we believe that they will be supportive.”
Don Marquis wrote that “a sequel is an admission that you’ve been reduced to imitating yourself.”
I found Reflections to be a disappointing sequel.