News and Tribune

September 15, 2011

9/11 Commission warns: Country still at risk

By Lesley Weidenbener
Franklin College Statehouse Bureau

BLOOMINGTON — The United States remains vulnerable to a cyber attack on utilities, banks and other civilian institutions as well as physical attacks from lone-wolf and sometimes home-grown radicals, members of the 9/11 Commission said Thursday during a reunion event at Indiana University.

That’s in part because traditional intelligence efforts — designed largely to detect conspiracies and plots — may not pick up a single actor who uses the Internet to infiltrate a power company’s computer system or a disturbed individual who fills a van with explosives or sprays poison on fruit in the grocery store.

Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who served as vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, said cyber security is particularly difficult. A cyber attack, can come from across the world with no warning, no he said, person ever breaching U.S. borders and little ability to track the attacker.

“This is a very serious threat because in so many areas of our lives we are dependent on computer systems — our transportation systems, our electrical grid, all the financial world,” said Hamilton, who helped organize the 9/11: 10 Years Later event at the Indiana University Auditorium.

“What we have to understand is we have very great vulnerabilities in this area and that it doesn’t take an army to attack those vulnerabilities. It takes a very smart hacker,” Hamilton said. “And so this becomes very difficult to defend against.”

Hamilton was one of eight members of the 9/11 Commission — which was authorized by Congress and then disbanded after issuing its report in 2004 — who participated in the look back at the terrorist attacks, the recommendations the group made to Congress and what has changed in the past decade. Two members of the group did not participate.

“This is the first time really we’ve been together almost since we wrote the report. It’s extraordinary,” said Thomas Kean, a former New Jersey governor who served as chairman of the 9/11 Commission. “What we’ve learned is our best defense is the American citizen. We have to remain alert and report what we see to officials.”

The members spoke to an audience of 800 for two hours and answered questions posed by former national broadcast journalist Ken Bode. They lauded Congress for accepting and implementing most of the group’s recommendations.

Among them: Centralizing intelligence efforts under one leader, encouraging information sharing among various defense and intelligence agencies, and clarifying the missions of those agencies.

“We have been considerably safer here in the United States as a result of those actions by Congress and two presidents of the United States who have not gotten much credit for the fact that nothing has happened,” said James Thompson, a former Illinois governor who served as chairman of the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board under President George H.W. Bush. “There’s still a long way to go but we have come a long way.”

The United States military has weakened al-Qaida — which masterminded the attacks — by killing or capturing its leaders, commission members said. The country has deterred other attacks with increased security at the airports and more unified law enforcement efforts, they said.

And the intelligence community is more alert, more cooperative and more likely to detect and act on concerns about possible attacks.

“The most impressive change is that people are imbued with the mission,” said Jamie Gorelick, a commission member and former deputy U.S. attorney general. “They see the consequence of failure.”

She said “there is no possibility” that someone in the intelligence community would get even a whiff today of a problem and not try to connect it to other intelligence.

But 9/11 Commission members were critical of Congress for failing to reorganize its own oversight of the intelligence community.

“The one place Congress did not act was as to itself,” Gorelick said. “It is a central failing and one that has to be corrected.”

Former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana said the commission recommended that just one or two congressional committees oversee the intelligence agencies. They need strong oversight, he said, because their work is done largely in secret. Instead, Congress continues to have more than 100 committees and subcommittees oversee parts of the defense and intelligence communities and they’re too weak to be effective, Roemer said.

Gorelick also rebuked Congress for failing to give budget authority to the national intelligence director it created. That had been another recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

“Now budget authority can sound like a very bureaucratic term,” she said. “But if you control the family purse strings, you know, people pay attention.”

Instead, the intelligence community underlings pay more attention to those dozens of committees that oversee their agencies and budgets, she said.

Still, commission members said the country is now better prepared to prevent an attack than it was 10 years ago. And Kean said it’s up to individuals — in addition to the intelligence community and law enforcement — to remain vigilant against terrorism, particularly those home-grown, lone individuals who are intent to harm.

But Gorelick said that additional incidents will occur. They won’t all be stopped.

“We cannot prevent all attacks on the United States,” Gorelick said. “So we need to build into our thinking and feeling a sense of resilience and a notion that we can pick ourselves up if we are attacked and move on and not panic and not say the world is coming to an end but move forward together in a unified way.”