Hamilton: In Five Years Since 9/11, United States Is ’Safer But Not Safe’

Lee H. Hamilton, the vice-chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), says "I would agree with the general assessment that we are safer than we were prior to 9/11, but we are not safe." While he is concerned about better protecting the United States from weapons of mass destruction, he is greatly worried about bioterrorism and ordinary chemical weapons.

August 17, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Homeland Security

In reviewing what has been done in the five years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Lee H. Hamilton, the vice-chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission), says "I would agree with the general assessment that we are safer than we were prior to 9/11, but we are not safe." Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says "there’s much, much more we need to do to be safer. I think not only the United States, but many of our allies as well remain highly vulnerable to a whole range of threats."

Hamilton says he is concerned about better protecting the United States from weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons, and ordinary chemical weapons. He says intelligence sharing has improved, but needs to be improved further.

Congressman, five years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we’ve had this disclosure that the British police have seized some twenty-odd people in Britain planning explosions on airliners going to the United States. What does that tell us? Are we less prepared to deal with similar-type 9/11 episodes, or are things under better control?

Well, they’re certainly not under control. It’s a very difficult judgment to make because you have to judge implementation and that’s very, very hard to do. There isn’t any doubt that we have taken very wide-ranging, expensive, intensive efforts to strengthen our homeland security in the United States in the last five years. And I would agree with the general assessment that we are safer than we were prior to 9/11, but we are not safe. There’s much, much more we need to do to be safer. Not only the United States, but many of our allies as well remain highly vulnerable to a whole range of threats.

Could you outline a couple of those threats?

At the top of the list for most everybody—and for me—is the threat of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction. That certainly is not the most likely scenario, but because of [its] severity, it is by all odds the most consequential, and the one we should put our greatest focus on in a variety of different ways. In my view, the most effective way would be to implement fully the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, where we try to identify, inventory, and dismantle nuclear arms in the former Soviet Union. But you also need other programs as well.

I am also worried greatly about the general area of bioterrorism because there, I think, an attack is much more likely than the weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t take a huge number of people—it doesn’t take even highly sophisticated science. It’s not necessarily easy, but a handful of top-flight scientists could put together a very severe bioterrorism attack against the United States, and I don’t think we’re very well prepared for that. Then of course you have the conventional means of attack, which appear to be the ones the terrorists are working on, as the London plot and the bombings in the Madrid trains and London subways would suggest. So it goes on with quite a few different threats. A chemical attack needs a lot more attention—all of these need attention. The chemical attack is a serious threat. Now, the major vulnerability there is in the transport itself. Take a company like Dow Chemical, for example. I can’t tell you all of these explosives, but chlorine gasses and the like are transported every day. And one of those tankers going off in the middle of downtown Washington or New York would cause a horrendous amount of damage, so I worry about that as well.

And is there some solution you have? These are all things that are difficult to prevent, right?

That’s correct, and the great problem in homeland security is the problem of priorities and making the hard choices. That is to say: What do you protect against, what targets do you protect? And by answering that question you exclude a lot of things. That is, you decide to protect this and not that. And these choices are very tough for politicians to make because they can be wrong, and we’ve been very, very slow in making these judgments and decisions.

You ask what we can do about it. Well, the quick answer to that is in order to effectively fight terrorism here at home you have to integrate all of the ways by which you counter terrorism. You have to improve intelligence, you have to improve law enforcement, you have to strengthen your capacity to trace terrorist financing, you have to have antiterrorism teams developed—New York City is way ahead of the game here on many of these things. You have to use public diplomacy, you have to use covert actions, you have to use intercepts.

The problem here is not in doing any of these things, but in integrating our policy. This is an organizational or structural problem. We have to make sure that we have the integrative mechanisms. You cannot handle all of these terrorist attacks by military action alone. Indeed, the military should be one of many techniques that you use. The military should have a supportive rather than a dominant role.

But to continue with the idea of integration, you’ve got to have border security—we’ve got major shortcomings there. You’ve got to screen airline passengers much more effectively than we have. We’re still not developing proper detection systems. It’s appalling to me that five years after 9/11 we have not developed detection for liquid explosives, for example. The idea of mixing benign liquids and creating explosives has been on the agenda for years, and this weekend [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff was talking about "pilot programs." Well my gosh, five years after the date and we’re still talking about "pilot programs." It shows a lack of real urgency here.

Are you one of those who are very critical of Homeland Security’s administration and operations?

Yes. I favored the creation of the Homeland Security Department, and I think it was the right thing to do. It’s an awfully difficult department to lead, and integrating it into an effective mechanism has not been easy, and we’ll be struggling with that for a while. They apparently did a good job, according to some of the papers, over this most recent problem [the London plot]. They did a lousy job after Katrina, of course.

The reason I said what I did earlier about implementation is that I thought prior to Katrina that we were much better prepared to respond to a natural disaster or a terrorist attack than we turned out to be. So it’s very hard to judge how effective a response from any department or agency will be. If you go to any department or agency in the federal government, and you ask them the question "What have you done since 9/11?" they’ll give you a sheet of fifty items—if not 150—telling you things they have done. It’s an impressive list in every single department. But the real question is not what they’ve got down on paper, but what they can implement, what they can carry out effectively. Now the only way you can get a gauge on that—that I know of—is to do it like the army does it, and that is you’ve got to train and have all kinds of maneuvers and exercises to make sure your plans work.

Do you have a problem with the intelligence set up? Are people sharing information better than they did prior to 9/11?

Well, the answer to that is clearly yes. But are they doing it effectively enough? I think the answer is no. In other words, it’s still a work in progress. You have the institutional structures in place to require the sharing, and, under the direction of the director of national intelligence [John Negroponte], representatives of these agencies and departments meet regularly. How effective is that at this point in time? That is a question of implementation. It’s very hard to judge. Are they sharing better than they did before 9/11? There isn’t any doubt about that. But it is still not, I believe, an easy, free-flowing kind of sharing. In other words, you have fourteen or fifteen intelligence agencies, most of which do a very good job in their respective areas and how well do they share? Well, if you ask any of them: Are you sharing information? They’ll say yes, of course we are, but the more you probe, the more doubts you’ve got about how much ease there is to that flow of information.

Just out of curiosity, are you and Tom Kean [chairman of the 9/11 Commission], briefed on a regular basis?

No. I am probably more than Tom because I serve on a couple of things—I’m on an advisory committee to the FBI. We meet with [FBI Director] Bob Mueller regularly. I’m on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where we deal with a lot of intelligence matters, and I also serve on some committees for Chertoff. So I keep my hand in this, maybe more than Tom is able to because he is in New Jersey.

Did you have problems with the New York Times’ disclosure of the president’s secret plans -- that is the phone conversations being monitored from overseas in this country and the bank record surveillance?

My major concern here is not so much the technique itself as the accountability—the checks and balances. In other words, the president does a lot of these things, and he has an expansive view of the presidency. In this world you need data mining as a tool of counterterrorism. That will require surveillance. You ought to follow the law, and that means going through the courts under the present situation. And if that’s not satisfactory then it’s incumbent on the president and Congress to come up with some ways of doing it. What I don’t like is giving the president exclusive power to do these things. I’m more critical of the surveillance of the calls than I am of the money. There are more checks and balances in the so-called SWIFT transactions (Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) than with regard to surveillance, and the program is an important one. I would not want to abolish that program—I wouldn’t want to abolish either of them—but I’d want to build more checks and balances into it.

In other words make the administration go to a special court to get a warrant?

That’s correct, with robust oversight by Congress. In other words, I don’t—and this is just kind of a general position with me—I don’t like power lodged anywhere exclusively. And I want Congress and the courts to play the full role.

Did the British have some advantage in their legal system in being able to track down these alleged terrorists?

I guess they do, but I’m no expert on that. I don’t know that much about the British legal system. They are not as sensitive overall, I think, as we are to the question of privacy and civil liberties. Incidentally, one of the things we recommended in the 9/11 Commission was the creation of a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board with very robust powers. The administration fooled around with it and didn’t appoint it for a long period of time, finally did appoint it, and they didn’t do much, and finally got them confirmed, and I think they’re in business now. But I’ve not seen anywhere that they’re very active.

I never heard of it. Who heads this board?

It’s Carol E. Dinkins. One of the guys that serves on it is Theodore B. Olson, the lawyer, and, as you’d expect, they’ve appointed a conservative board. But I have talked with Dinkins, and I think her intent is good. But my view is that this board has to be very robust, and it ought to be looking into every nook and cranny of these intelligence activities, examining them from a civil liberties/privacy point of view. Often you can accommodate the civil liberties/privacy point of view if you just work at it a little bit. Sometimes you can’t, but often you can, and I’d like to see that board—and I know the other 9/11 commissioners feel the same way—be very aggressive. They have not been to date. They may be in the future, but I just don’t know.