The Day After 9/11

09/12/2011 07:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

The observance of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the days leading up to it were very moving. Accounts of that horrific day, the flood of emotions, and the shared remembrances with people who were there with me in Washington will linger for some time.

Never running far from the surface, though, were also thoughts of what we have learned since that day and what we ought to have done differently. Clearly, all can now agree that it was a dreadful mistake to abandon the intensive search for Osama bin Laden -- a decision that delayed until earlier this year the day when he was finally brought to justice.

We could argue that the rash decision to invade Iraq was, in retrospect, a colossal mistake. I for one have never regretted for one minute my opposition to that failed policy, but have wondered if there might have been more effective ways to communicate the depth of that opposition and to engage the majority of the public who then supported military action.

Today in Congress, I am focusing on what we have learned and where we go from here. The shortcuts of increasing government encroachment, the reducing of civil liberty protections, and the explosion of spending on what looked like security remain a sore point looking forward.

With more people than ever holding Top Secret clearances working for more than 3,000 government agencies and private security firms, our intelligence network has sprawled beyond control and beyond our capacity to even account for it -- much less to use it effectively. This vast bureaucracy has arguably become a source of increased vulnerability to the United States, not greater safety.

After all, it wasn't as though we were unaware of Osama bin Laden's intention and that an attack might well have been imminent. It was lost in what was, even in 2001, a flood of information and dysfunction that was illustrated by the response at all levels of a government that was caught unprepared.

Reading the events leading up to that fateful day and what immediately transpired is always sobering, but 10 years after the fact we can look ahead to how we streamline our intelligence system and make it a more effective safeguard against future attacks:

1. Rein in and reform our sprawling intelligence bureaucracy. This expansive and expensive bureaucracy is itself a potential source for infiltration, mistake and betrayal. You just can't keep close track of a group of intelligence workers so large in size that it rivals the population of the state of Delaware. It makes information hard to filter, turf wars harder to avoid, and conflicting sources of information and analysis harder to reconcile.

2. Wind down our presence in Afghanistan quickly and responsibly. We are investing far too much American life and treasure in Afghanistan, and we are doing so in a way that is unlikely to hasten or improve what experts believe to be the ultimate resolution: a negotiated settlement that will involve some of the warlords (not particularly savory) and some elements of the Taliban (even less so). This continued odyssey wastes our scarce resources and disheartens our country while it continues to create more animosity than friendship in neighboring Pakistan and other surrounding areas.

3. Reinvest in the sources of American power and prosperity here at home. Today in Congress, political warfare is short-changing the future for America's families -- especially our children. It is time to bring smart reform to education, agriculture and environmental policies while strengthening and accelerating the reforms we have already made to our health care system. We must also provide targeted, effective support to communities that are grappling with budget cuts and ongoing economic struggles.

The bottom line is that today, bad policy-making is weakening the capacity of America to compete in the future. Were we to scale down and better manage our sprawling security apparatus and our questionable, hugely expensive adventure in Afghanistan, we would be better positioned to meet the many other challenges.

Getting our priorities where they belong and getting more value from existing government spending is vitally important, and should come before we slash services that are essential to our students, seniors, environment and communities across the country and before we start asking anyone to pay more.

I think this is a threshold issue for Congress and for our country. Embarking on the next decade with a broader, smarter view of security by focusing on our long-term strength and competitiveness will force us to spend resources where they will do the most good, protect the health and welfare of our communities, and save the lives of our soldiers.

I will never forget in the aftermath of the shock of 9/11, the sense of coming together and determination that was evident no matter where one looked. We need that same determination, that same cohesion, and that same shared sense of purpose every bit 10 years after 9/11 as we did on September 12, 2001.