As we remember the more than 3,000 casualties from September 11 now fifteen years ago today, and reflect on whether their deaths were avoidable, it is necessary to recall the warnings of terrorist attacks on American soil issued as early as 1999 and repeated on January 31, 2001, by the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century of which one of these authors, General Charles Boyd, was Executive Director and the other author, Senator Gary Hart, was, with his late colleague, Senator Warren Rudman, co-chair.
That commission was mandated to provide the most comprehensive review of U.S. national security since the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 and to make recommendations to the next President of the United States on countering new indications and warnings of threats in a dramatically changing world.
A bipartisan panel of distinguished Democratic and Republican national security experts oversaw a staff of highly experienced military, Foreign Service, and intelligence scholars. Commissioners and staff traveled to 28 foreign countries, convened 33 major conferences, collecting information and ideas from hundreds of expert witnesses on a comprehensive range of security threats, but also security opportunities. Our focus was consistently on the differences the world of the early 21st century would represent from the 20th. Very early in our deliberations we became convinced that the new era of terrorism would visit the American homeland sooner rather than later and with potential catastrophic consequences.
Early on, in interim public reports, we warned that, "Terrorists will likely attack the United States and Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." In our final report to the new George W. Bush administration eleven days after its inauguration, we repeated that stark warning in print to the President and in person to the Secretaries of State and Defense and to the new National Security Adviser.
We were specifically and deeply concerned that the three principal agencies with responsibility for border protection, the Coast Guard, Customs Service and Border Patrol, were accountable to three separate Cabinet officers in separate Departments and did not possess a common communications system or data base. Watch lists were haphazard and often not shared. Thus, our first recommendation was to create a U.S. Department of Homeland Security responsible to one Cabinet officer who would be accountable to the President, Congress and the American people.
The new administration did not undertake that effort until more than nine months after the tragedy of 9/11, and it is still attempting to achieve full effectiveness. Nonetheless, the great government of the United States, in the eight months between our urgent recommendation and 9/11, could, at the very least, have created that communication system and data base among the border agencies and vastly increased the chances of identifying the terrorist plotters.
We Americans are steadfast, even courageous, in responding to attacks on our nation. We are less than steadfast at anticipating, preparing for, and preventing those attacks.
We who write these words believe that future terrorist attacks are virtually inevitable. They may or may not utilize commercial aircraft in their purposes. But a cyber shutdown of our air traffic control system might cost multiple numbers of casualties beyond 9/11, a similar cyber attack on our highly computerized financial systems would wreck our economy, and much of the rest of the world, until repaired. And who is to determine whether a highly contagious viral pandemic was the work of nature or biological terrorists.
A great nation such as ours cannot function on perpetual high alert, nor will we become a frightened people. But eternal vigilance requires informed, serious and concerned citizens. We owe it to those who perished to do nothing less.
Given our experience, as vivid in our memories today as it was watching thousands of our fellow citizens perish on television fifteen years ago, one should not wonder why these thoughts are still on our minds.
Convinced of peril yet unable to generate administrative or legislative action, against the backdrop of that intense experience, we cannot help but ponder whether, possibly for the remainder of a lifetime, we could have and should have done more.