The Right Way to Remember 9/11

An incoming administration presents the opportunity to openly discuss how to make America safer, write P.J. Crowley and Michael Signer.

American flags inscribed with the names of the victims of the terrorists attacks fly in Battery Park in New York. A changing of administrations presents the opportunity to discuss a new homeland security strategy. (AP/Mary Altaffer)
American flags inscribed with the names of the victims of the terrorists attacks fly in Battery Park in New York. A changing of administrations presents the opportunity to discuss a new homeland security strategy. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

As leaders gather today at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, the most fitting memorial we can offer U.S. citizens is the assurance that, if we face another 9/11 in the future, we will respond with policies and actions that are more effective and more consistent with our system and our values.

Over the next 60 days, much of our national debate about national security will naturally focus on foreign policy. Nations including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia are currently are serving as the primary focal points for which candidate and party has the best plan to keep us safe. While clearly important, this discussion also will have limits, because a key element of our national security policy—our homeland security mission—will be largely absent.

The anniversary of 9/11 presents a unique opportunity to assess the state of our homeland security policy. Are we safer? Are we better prepared? Much has been accomplished during the past seven years, but we have also strayed from the original imperative—confronting and undermining radical terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda.

The results are in on the current administration’s approach. The military-dominated strategy in Iraq has largely run its course. At a cost of between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, it will yield partial success at best. Iraq poses a challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East, but it never represented a direct threat to the American homeland. Conversely, Osama bin Laden used his safe haven in Afghanistan to plot the September 11 attacks. He remains a danger—now from the tribal areas of Pakistan. The Al Qaeda movement has changed, as well, and remains an active threat against the United States and our allies.

Even though homeland security is unlikely to play a major role in the campaign, it must be a priority for the next president, beginning literally the day after the election. Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress and Third Way launched the Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative. The HSPTI begins from the premise that there will be a heightened security risk in the upcoming year since attacks occurred during the first years of the administrations of President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown in England.

Based on a series of working groups that included a wide range of experts from both parties, we have identified four urgent priorities that should guide the next president through the transition. The practical and hard-hitting steps our experts have discussed will, in the long run, take homeland security to the next level.

First, an effective transition will begin with leadership. Various agencies created after September 11, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, will undergo their first-ever full presidential transition. The Bush administration is placing career civilians in senior positions to ensure continuity. The next president must rapidly assemble his senior leadership team and clear it through the FBI. The Bush administration should be willing to have extensive in-briefings during the nominating process. Congress must do its part, confirming as many political appointees as rapidly as possible—in days and weeks, rather than months.

Second, the next president must establish clear priorities, which begins with getting the homeland security mission back on track. Is homeland security just protecting the country from threats of terrorism? Or does it require a broader goal? We believe the nation needs a new homeland security mission that will liberate the people from fear, focus on resiliency, and aim to recover as quickly as possible from all threats, while maintaining our American way of life.

We have seen the perils of poor mission focus, planning, and execution. In New Orleans, the city’s population and economy are still well below the levels of three years ago. The levees are stronger, but no one knows for sure if they can withstand another serious punch like Katrina. Elsewhere, federal agents continue workplace raids and detain and deport illegal immigrants in the name of fighting terrorism. While there may be a legal basis for these actions, it is doubtful that our country is more secure as a result.

Third, the next president should establish a more effective relationship with cities, states, and the private sector, effectively implementing a new approach to federalism. The federal government cannot secure the American homeland alone, although it will always shoulder the most significant burden. The mission will always be primarily local.

The most effective weapon to prevent another attack is the policeman on the beat. This is one reason we have seen the greatest innovation and effectiveness in homeland security operations in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Yet many cities, including New York, face shrinking tax revenue and increasing municipal budgets. Under the existing governing ideology, the Bush administration has repeatedly cut federal support for police and first responders. Many federal mandates have also been unfunded, and states have been slower to respond to domestic contingencies with large numbers of National Guard troops and equipment in Iraq.

The Bush administration has also assumed that private companies and private markets will, in general, automatically secure the critical systems and networks that we rely upon every day. The private sector operates roughly 85 percent of what we term critical infrastructure, but as our current economic difficulties illustrate, companies and markets are hardly infallible. In fact, most welll-run businesses want—and in many cases, are still waiting for—the federal government to set appropriate national security standards. The new president has an opportunity to develop a new framework for how the federal government interacts with the whole range of actors in the homeland security mission.

Finally, the next president must work directly with the American people to put terrorism back in context. Much of what we have done over the past seven years has been driven by a sense of fear that is out of proportion with the threat we face.

For three years after 9/11, the Bush administration issued frequent warnings about possible attacks. People were introduced to a confusing color-coded alert system that hasn’t changed since August 2006. At the same time, the government became more secretive about information. Some restrictions are clearly justified, but we are stronger as a country when our government is more transparent and when the American people, their legislators, the media, and other advocacy organizations are well informed, alert, and able to conduct needed government oversight.

During this critical week and throughout the next two months, we can honor the memories of the fallen from 9/11 with a forthright and respectful discussion of how best to equip the incoming administration with fresh ideas, practical advice, and a coherent strategy to make our nation safer, stronger, and more resilient. We should never forget the pain we felt seven years ago, but we cannot allow fear to force us to take short-term steps that undermine our long-term security, that change who we are and how we live, and that undermine the great American values that must continue to guide us in the months and years ahead.

P.J. Crowley is a senior fellow and director of homeland security at the Center for American Progress. Michael Signer is senior policy advisor at the Center for American Progress and director of the Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative, a joint project of CAP and Third Way.

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