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Lee Hamilton, former Columbus resident and U.S. Representative from Indiana’s Ninth District from 1965 to 1999, was the vice chair of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 Commission.
The group prepared an account of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and provided recommendations to guard against future attacks.
The Commission released its public report on July 22, 2004 and closed a month later. Shortly thereafter, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project was started as a non-governmental nonprofit by the ten members of the 9/11 Commission. Intended as a public education campaign which focused on making America safer and more aware of existing and potential dangers, the project ceased operations on Dec. 31, 2005.
The Bipartisan Policy Center launched the National Security Preparedness Group on July 13, 2009 to further examine the changing threats to the U.S. Hamilton is co-chairman of the group.
The Republic reporter Chrissy Alspaugh interviewed Hamilton to learn whether the nation is safer today than on 9/11.
Q: Congressman Hamilton, please begin by discussing your current involvement in national security.
I direct the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which tries to explain to people the role of congress in a representative democracy. But I still have a number of responsibilities tied to Washington. I serve on the president’s intelligence advisory board, which advises him on all intelligence matters. I just resigned from a committee advising Director Robert Mueller of the FBI. I’m trying to cut back on some of my responsibilities. I serve on an advisory board to Janet Napolitano, who is the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. And I had been serving as an adviser to Leon Panetta at the CIA, he’s transferred, of course, to the (Department of Defense), and I don’t know what my future is with regard to that. In addition to that, I serve on a Bipartisan Policy Center Homeland Security National Security Advisory Board. So I still have my finger in the pot here, to some degree.
Q: What are the goals of the National Security Preparedness Group?
The National Security Policy Group is sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, that’s independent bipartisan, not government, funded — privately funded. Our role has been to follow developments in homeland security. It’s really a continuation of the 9/11 Commission.
Q: How far have we come, as a nation, in enacting the recommendations put forth by the 9/11 Commission?
The 9/11 Commission report produced a lot of recommendations. We think about 80 percent of those recommendations have been approved, in part or in full. There are some very important recommendations which are not yet implemented. And so we’re following the implementation of these as yet not enacted recommendations. That’s what the National Security Policy group does. We’re following developments more broadly in homeland security and urging continual improvements.
Q: What is the most important work we’ve done as a country to make ourselves safer in the past decade?
We have not had a successful attack. That’s terribly important. We’ve had some close escapes, but we’ve not had a successful attack on us. Is that due to our good work or to luck? We don’t know the answer to that. Probably a mixture of both, we don’t really know. But I believe we’ve done a lot of good work on homeland security. And because of that work, we are safer. But we still have much we could do to make us even more safe and more secure.
Q: What is the most important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that’s been overlooked?
There are several. Two of them really stand out in my mind. One is the ability of first-responders to communicate with one another at the scene of a disaster. This is the inter-operability question. It’s a no-brainer. Clearly you want the first-responders to be able to talk with one another, seamlessly. It’s a source of considerable frustration to me that we have not yet accomplished that. It’s not easily done. It’s quite involved, requires the allocation of the radio spectrum, which is a very valuable piece of property. And the implementation of it is difficult. But, having recognized all of the obstacles, I’m still very frustrated that we have not achieved what is so clearly necessary when you have a disaster, that all of the responders are able to talk to one another. That is number one.
Number two is the unity of command problem. When a disaster strikes, you have to have one person in charge. That person has to make hundreds of decisions quickly. Some of them will be made wrong, but they have to be made. And this, too, is a no-brainier in my mind at least, that someone has to be in charge at the scene of the disaster. We don’t have that worked out yet. Now, some communities tell me they have worked it out. I hope they are right. I’m not totally persuaded that they are right. But it’s very important that you have a unified command at the site of the disaster. We don’t have it yet. Politically, it’s hard to work out because disasters don’t obey political jurisdictions. They will hit, and there may be a city, a state, a port authority, a county involved, and you have almost by definition some confusion because of the federalist system, as to who’s in charge. Politicians don’t like to solve that problem ahead of time. They want to maintain the fiction at least that they’re in charge, when they might not be. The unity of command problem remains.
There are other problems, I don’t think the Congress has done what it should with regard to oversight of the intelligence community. I’m disappointed we haven’t developed better technology in detection of these various kinds of explosives, the Detroit bomber, for example. It’s disappointing to me that the technology has not evolved to the point where we can be absolutely sure when you walk through the detector that there’s no danger to the American public. So, a lot of work is still to be done.
Q: How do you weigh the civil liberty trade-offs we’ve made in the name of better national security?
I am concerned about them. I think the powers that were sought by the law enforcement people under the Patriot Act are not unreasonable. The question is how they are carried out, how they’re implemented. We recommended in the 9/11 commission report, and this is one of the recommendations not implemented, or I should say partially implemented, we recommended a privacy and civil liberties board. All of the commissioners thought this was necessary, as a check on the intelligence communities and their activities which invade privacy or civil liberties. In a sense since 9/11, the security people win every argument. Everything they want to do has a reasonable basis. They paint a dark picture if you don’t do it, so we have really given extensive powers under the Patriot Act and otherwise to law enforcement agencies. What has been missing in the federal government has been a push-back from a group dedicated to protecting privacy and civil liberties. The board has been established, passed into law, but neither President Bush nor President Obama has seen that it has been fully staffed and appointed with members. I am told President Obama wants that in operational capacity, that board, by the end of the year. I hope very much that’s true. I will wait to see. But it’s been of course a disappointment to us that the board has not been established and acting robustly. They’re going to have a very tough job because what they have to do is push back against the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and a lot of other agencies that want to extend their powers. How much surveillance do we do, for example, of American citizens. It seems like a simple question, but it’s almost impossible to get an answer to it. I’ve asked the question a thousand times. How many national security letters does the FBI send out? I don’t know the answer to that, and I’ve been very close to it. In other words, I think there is at least potentially here a very worrisome problem. I can’t tell you how big the problem actually is, but when you expand the powers of law enforcement agencies to keep their eye on Americans, and keep in mind that they now have extraordinary technology to do that, you have to be concerned about civil liberties and privacy. And I don’t think we, as a country, have been sufficiently concerned about it. I want to see that board established. I want to see it fully staffed. I want to see it funded. And I want to see it acting robustly to give us some leverage, if you would, some push back to the expansion of activities which encroach upon the American people’s civil liberties.
I think the agencies need somebody watching over their shoulder. If you sat down with the director of the CIA or the FBI, they can make a very good case why they need the additional powers. They’re quite persuasive on it. The problem is the history of abuse. Agencies that get these powers may initially be quite good in the implementation of those powers. But what you have to keep in mind is that once you give an agency that kind of power, it doesn’t evaporate, it doesn’t diminish. It tends to grow and become more extensive. Somebody has to be watching that all the time, in my view, to protect those civil liberties and privacy.
Q: If you were in a position to enact policy, what is the one thing you would do today to improve the nation’s security?
The one thing I would like to see that is across the board is a much greater sense of urgency on homeland security. 9/11 is 10 years ago. A thousand and one things have intervened in the public mind since 9/11. And we’ve had no foreign attack on us. It’s understandable that we’ve become a little complacent and reverted to business as usual in homeland security. And I think that’s the thing that would concern me the most. That has implications across the board, unified command on operability, on detection equipment and on and on, but what I find missing is this sense of urgency that we had at one point right after 9/11 that I think has gradually diminished.
You don’t get it back to the same degree that you had it, right after 9/11. But I think we have to be more conscious of the intent and the capability of those who wish to do us harm. And I hope we can move with a greater sense of urgency on these yet-to-be enacted recommendations, and there may be others that didn’t come from the 9/11 commission necessarily.
The quick answer to that question is political leadership. The political leadership of the country at all levels — local, state and federal — have to keep reminding people of the risks of the threats to the American security from terrorist attack.
Q: As you are aware, Columbus is invested in becoming an increasingly international community. How do you view the way society has treated Muslim Americans since 9/11?
I think we’ve all had a crash course on Islam since 9/11. most of us gave it very little thought prior to 9/11, and after 9/11 we’ve learned a lot. That process has been an educational process, a healthy process. The question of how welcoming a community is to Islam varies enormously. It’s really not a federal question. It’s a local question. As you would expect, in a country as big and diverse as ours, the answer has been quite varied from community to community. Columbus has a reputation, deservedly so, of being a welcoming community. We clearly have some formidable cultural barriers to surmount. You run across in our national life at least instances of extreme suspicion of Islam and of foreigners. This gets tied into the immigration debate, too. The country is changing. When I went to high school, we had 130 million in the people in the country. Today, what is it, 307 or 8 million? In my lifetime, the population of the country has far more than doubled. Beyond that, it has become much, much more varied. Southern Indiana has always been identified by the demographers by a homogeneous population. And that has traditionally been true, and it still is true, relatively speaking. But even in southern Indiana you have seen quite a flux of foreign names and people. My view is that immigration has greatly enriched this country, but obviously it has changed the country and is changing it more. in states like California, the majority of voters now are non-white. And there are several states right at that point. In Indiana I don’t know what the figures are, but they keep creeping up. This represents a threat to people. This is not the country they grew up in. and change is worrisome to them. This question is a very difficult one for our communities. There’s a lot of good activity being done at the local level, and I’m informed in Columbus as well, to integrate these people into the country and into the community. But we have some bumps and bruises along the way.
Q: How do you assess the terrorist threat over the next decade? What makes you lose sleep at night? What makes you feel optimistic?
We have made progress. We are safer. That’s a very important fact. It has come at a high cost. We have spent billions and billions of dollars. Private sectors have spent millions and millions of dollars maybe billions, to improve security of their operations. Much of our critical infrastructure in the country is privately controlled not publicly controlled. All of these things we have done have made us a good bit safer.
Do I worry about things? Yes, I do. One of the things I worry about is the terrorist getting his hands on nuclear materials. This is not the most likely threat, but it is in a class by itself in terms of the consequences. We estimated in the 9/11 report that if a terrorist set off a nuclear device in Manhattan, you would have 500,000 deaths. Now, that’s beyond our ability to comprehend. We had 3,000 deaths in 9/11 and have seen all of the impact that that has had. This threat has to be taken very, very seriously. We must develop the means to stop a terrorist to launch a (weapon of mass destruction) attack in the United States. I mentioned a nuclear weapon, more likely would be anthrax or a radioactive materials not necessarily nuclear, lower grade explosives. The terrorist has to be thinking about this. You remember the problems we had on capital hill when they found a few grams of anthrax powder. It strikes panic into people, for understandable reasons. So, those kinds of things worry me.
I worry about the vulnerabilities of our country and our communities. Is the water supply adequately protected? Is the electric grid adequately protected? I think we have to get much more vigorous in defending against the so-called cyber attack. I worry a lot about a cyber attack on the United States. We are so interconnected today, in all sorts of ways, electronically, so dependent upon these electronic grids, that they are quite vulnerable. The terrorists have been good at identifying our vulnerabilities. Going back to 9/11, they knew they could get on that airplane carrying a 4-inch blade knife but not an 8-inch blade knife. They knew what our rules were. So, you have to give them some credit for identifying our vulnerabilities. Those are the kinds of things that concern me a great deal. I think cyber attacks are looming larger and larger in our view as a threat to the United States, an evolving threat.
There are a lot of reasons for optimism. The recent history is good. We have not been attacked by foreign Al-Qaeda. We have taken a lot of steps in this country to make us more secure. We are sharing more information. The federal government, the private sector, state governments, local governments are more informed about the kinds of attacks that could come to their community. The population is more alert. The shoe-bomber on the airplane was identified; the first responder is not the fireman and the police man. They’re the second responder. The first responder is the person on the street, who observes the van door in Times Square, or the guy trying to light his shoe on the airplane. The American public is more conscious, and they really are the first line of defense.
I think the real question, in a budgetary sense on homeland security, is not so much the amount of money spent, as the cost-effectiveness of how we’ve spent it. Coming into the debate now, more and more, is “Is this money cost-effective in terms of securing the American people?” That’s a difficult judgment to make but has to be made. In the past 10 years we’ve kind of appropriated the money, whatever’s asked we’ve provided. That has to change. We’ve got to get a little more cost-effective in our analysis of homeland security funding.
Q: What do you think is the greatest future threat to the American people?
I think first we’ve made a lot of progress in making the country safer. We are certainly safer today than we were on 9/11. But I don’t think we’re as safe as we could be. I agree with those who say we have diminished the capability of Al-Qaeda. But we have not removed it. And so I think Al-Qaeda remains a threat to the country. I do not think it’s an existential threat, the existence of the country is not an issue. But they can still do us harm, and we want to do all we can to make ourselves, this country, more secure. You ask about the emerging threat. The nature of the threat evolves. Al-Qaeda’s capabilities are diminished. Their intent, however, has not changed. We have weakened Al-Qaeda because we have removed much of its top leadership, Osama bin Laden being the most significant. But incidentally he was more involved in operational planning than we thought. Al-Qaeda is much more diffuse than it was. There are pockets of strength of Al-Qaeda. So I think it remains a threat that is a serious one to the country. And we must not be overly complacent. The threat that concerns us now in many ways is the home-grown terrorist, the American citizen if you would, who turns radical and subject to extremist ideology. This is the so-called lone wolf threat, and in many ways it’s harder to detect than a more elaborate attack on the United States. And as you know we’ve had some close escapes. And in the Fort Hood case, a lone wolf, so far as we know, acted there and caused enormous consequences, fatalities. So, the threat continues to evolve, and there is no doubt that the capability of Al-Qaeda has diminished, the intent has not, and we must not become complacent. We must keep our guard up.
Q: What should communities be doing to make themselves safer?
Every community must analyze its infrastructure and ask themselves the question, “What in this community is most vulnerable?” That’s not an off-the-wall game. You can identify, in Columbus, the 10 top targets a terrorist might think about. And then you ask yourself the question, “Are we taking reasonable steps to protect that infrastructure?” Are we educating our young people and ourselves about the threat, not to scare them to death, there’s no reason for that, but be reasonable. Keep your eyes open as you’re moving about the country and the community.
Are we, as a community, seriously trying to integrate the immigrant into our community? Our law enforcement people pick up information about radicals from the local community. Let’s take Indiana university, or you’ve got IUPUI and Ivy Tech. You’ve got a number of foreign students, thousands of them. Almost everybody would say, I would say, that’s wonderful, to have Americans going abroad and studying and foreigners coming here. We all learn from that, we enrich our lives from it. We benefit from their skills and knowledge and talents. But it’s also true that that is a wonderful avenue for spies to come into a community and infiltrate us. You have to be alert to that. If I am a student in a dormitory at Indiana University, and one of my dormitory roommates is doing some unusual things that students don’t ordinarily do, that’s a suspicious activity that needs to be reported. That may be just that he or she may be an oddball, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, he or she also may be a spy. So, people have to be alert to those things. When in doubt, report. There’s no question about that. We have, in this state, what we call a Fusion Center in Indianapolis. It has representatives of all law enforcement units in the state. They have a unit up there which receives reports of suspicious activity. Suppose you see somebody outside Cummins Engine company taking a lot of pictures of the plant. Well, that’s kind of an odd thing to do. It could very well be, nine times out of 10, it’s a totally innocent activity. The tenth time, or the hundredth time, it could be a person figuring out how to get a bomb inside that gate. And we must not be oblivious to that. if we see it, we report it. To whom do we report it? You report it to the local law enforcement people. They have to make judgments everyday, “Is this a crackpot reporting?” Or is it serious? You have to filter that, and it becomes hard. But for the ordinary citizen, the rule would be, if in doubt, report suspicious activity. I don’t want to scare people by these examples. I do believe we’ve made progress in creating a climate in the country where ordinary citizens are more aware of suspicious activity than they might previously have been. And that’s very, very important for the security of a community.
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