As President George W. Bush returned to Washington aboard Air Force One on September 11, he was accompanied by Michel morell, the CIA officer who informed the president daily.
Morell was in contact with CIA headquarters, which gave him jaw-dropping intelligence that he urgently needed to pass on to the President.
“The message was that what happened that morning was the first of two waves of attacks on the United States,” Morell said. “So I’m sitting here with a president who just suffered the biggest attack ever in the history of the homeland. And his intelligence official was telling him that maybe it was just the first of two.”
Of course, there was no second wave despite strong fears of the anxious days that followed.
In his opening remarks to the nation, Bush said, “The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake: we will show the world that we will pass this ordeal.
So here we are, 20 years later. Did the United States pass the test? Is the country safer?
NPR asked several former public servants who have held leadership positions over the past two decades. Their collective response could be summed up as follows: “Yes, but …”
One thing is clear: al-Qaida carried out several deadly attacks on US targets in the years leading up to September 11. But since that terrible day, the only deadly attack in the United States with a direct link to al-Qaida was a 2019 shootout by a Saudi aviation student that killed three people at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
“We are safer. We have done a lot to prevent another major catastrophic attack,” said Jane harman, who was a member of the California Democratic Congress. A prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee, she was on her way to the Capitol Dome when news of 9/11 broke.
“This dome I was heading towards was the target of the fourth plane,” said Harman, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania. “So, you know, it’s a little personal.”
She is quick to add that the US response since September 11 has included many damaging mistakes. She considers herself among the leaders, a field she covers in a book she wrote this year, Defense of madness.
“What we have done wrong in the future is that we have gone beyond the mission” in Afghanistan, she said. “The mission was to reduce Al-Qaida’s ability to attack us again. We did it very quickly. But we stayed. There was a drift of the mission. We over-militarized our response.”
The other huge misstep, she says, was to invade Iraq on the false premise that Saddam Hussein was making weapons of mass destruction, or was somehow linked to al-Qaida.
“I supported the Iraq resolution because I believed this information,” Harman said. “So it was a mistake, probably number one first.”
Not living up to American values
Doug Lute was known as the “war czar” for Iraq and Afghanistan on President Obama’s National Security Council. The retired army lieutenant general, who also served as the United States’ ambassador to NATO, said the United States is now more secure thanks to advances in military firepower.
“We literally have the ability to strike anywhere in the world almost overnight,” Lute said. “We can do it from the air. We can do it from systems launched at sea. We can do it with people on the ground.”
But he adds that the United States has done itself considerable harm for failing to live up to its values, at home and abroad.
“You see a shift in democratic values here in the United States. It’s hard to refute after witnessing the January 6 example,” he said, referring to supporters of the then president, Donald Trump, who stormed the Capitol.
“But also overseas. I mean, this notion of extreme interrogation measures, a euphemism for torture, is certainly not in line with American values.”
A growing list of threats
Janet Napolitano, who headed the Homeland Security Department under Obama, said the country needs to think more broadly about the definition of national security.
Its list includes border security, ransomware attacks, pandemics, mass shootings, natural disasters as well as disinformation.
In his 2019 book, Are we safe?, it defends homeland security against critics who see it as a massive, heavy bureaucracy trying to do too many different things.
She says the ministry’s many different agencies are needed to deal with the ever-evolving threats.
“The risk environment is changing,” she said. “It would be next to impossible for hijackers to grab commercial airliners and arm them. On the other hand, the risks from cyber attacks have steadily increased.”
What would Osama bin Laden think?
Michael Morell has now retired from the CIA after serving as deputy director. He now has a podcast, Intelligence matters, and says he’s still trying to get into the heads of former opponents. He wonders what Osama bin Laden would think if he was still alive.
“I think he would be pretty happy,” Morell said. “He would look at the number of extremists in the world today, and he would see a much larger number than what existed on September 10, 2001. He would also believe he had weakened America as a result of the wars in Afghanistan. and in Iraq, not only militarily, but politically. “
Yes, said Morell, we are safer. We passed the test. But we have suffered real damage along the way.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. Follow it @ gregmyre1.