Forget all the election rhetoric of the past many months. The new President will face real issues, real challenges. Now is a good time, therefore, to review important lessons learned from 9/11.
Here are six such lessons, beginning with the most important, transition.
1. Terrorists struck during the transition from one administration to another, and from one party to another.
This is not about current planning being done by both candidates. It is about the actual transition of power, something that does not happen overnight. International actors, known and unknown, will test the new administration.
Transition is an inherent period of instability that requires diligence, efficiency, and collaboration. What thought have the candidates given to transition? How are they going to meld the outgoing administration, the incoming administration and the congress into an diligent, efficient and collaborative team?
A comprehensive transition should facilitate decision making, especially if the transition is from one political party to the other. And that is the second lesson learned.
2. The terrorists were able to operated well within the nation’s decision making process
It is a military imperative to operate inside the decision making cycle of an enemy.
The 9/11 attacking force, numbering just 19 members, easily stayed inside the nations’s decision making process. From the moment the first two hijackers arrived in California on January 15, 2000, until ordinary citizens took matters into their own hands and brought down United Airlines flight 93 twenty months later, the nation was always behind, strategically and tactically
The attackers commandeered commercial airliners and converted them into guided missiles that destroyed the World Trade Center complex, seriously damaged the Pentagon, and ultimately failed to strike a final target. Not once did the government under two administrations gain the upper hand, always playing catch up, and just missing a final opportunity to keep flight 93 from taking off.
What will the new President do to streamline decision processes among and within the organizations that make up the bureaucracy?
Just one system was attacked on 9/11. But there are many systems and subsystems in the bureaucracy that are supposed to keep the government functioning and the people safe. And that is the third lesson learned.
3. Government is a complex mix of systems and subsystems that need protection
9/11 was an attack on the National Airspace System (NAS), a subsystem of the National Transportation System. Two people, the National Operations Manager, and the Commander, Northeast Air Defense Sector, were responsible for the operation and defense of the NAS on the East Coast. Over time, the occupants of those positions had never met, their staffs did not know each other, and the two organizations had never exercised together. They never shared a common operating picture of the threat, or the battlefield as the attack unfolded.
What will the new President do to ensure operational information gets to where it is needed and that the operators and defenders of government systems and subsystems share critical information? Do the candidates appreciate the complex arrangement of systems and subsystems that keep the government functioning?
The operators and defenders of the systems and subsystems of government were and are the battle commanders. And that is the fourth lesson learned.
4. 9/11 was a battle in a larger war on terror
Presidents and Generals fight wars. Colonels and civilians of equivalent grade fight battles. There was no time for national level involvement. As it happened, the national level was just getting itself organized when American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon. No National Command Authority should be so surprised.
What role can and should the President play in a fast moving battle? What are the relevant authorities of the President? What should the President further delegate and how can that be done quickly? Is the National Command Authority where it needs to be to face a national threat? And that is the fifth lesson learned.
5. The National Command Authority failed to recognized that the 9/11 attack was a threat to the nation, not a threat to the person of the President or Vice President.
The attack was a national threat. The Secret Service, with help from the White House Staff and the Pentagon, perceived a personal threat. As a result both the Vice President and President were denied the opportunity to stand and deliver, to face the threat and, if necessary, die.
The Vice President was consigned to PEOC purgatory. The President hightailed to the hinterland because that is where Air Force One took him. Neither could communicate effectively with the other.
How will a new President seek to ensure that the National Command Authority is present for duty in a chaotic situation? And that is the sixth lesson learned.
6. 9/11 and the aftermath descended into Chaos, nearly unmanageable.
Chaos is the one, near universal, word used to describe the events of September 11, 2001. Participants were recorded using the word, eyewitnesses and other commentators used it, and writers and journalists continue to use it. No one defines chaos, it is simply understood.
John Farmer, in a Team 8 memo to the Commission front office wrote:
In perhaps no aspect of the 9-11 attacks is the public record, as reflected in both news accounts and testimony before this Commission, so flatly at odds with the truth. The challenge in relating the history of one of the most chaotic days in our history…is to avoid replicating that chaos in writing about it.
On September 12, 2010, Ted Koppel, in the Washington Post, Outlook Section, wrote:
Could bin Laden in his wildest imaginings, have hoped to provoke greater chaos?” The article was titled: “Let’s stop playing into bin Laden’s hands.
Chaotic events eventually settle into a steady state. Koppel’s comment suggests we are nowhere near a new steady state. The nation and the world must be prepared to manage chaos. How will the new President do that?
Turning Washington upside down on day one is not the answer.