What Good Were The 9/11 Commission's Recommendations?
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.
The president, several cabinet secretaries and many members of Congress this past week have been talking about what went wrong. The full picture of what led up to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on its way to Detroit is still not clear. And the pieces of the puzzle are still being put together. President Obama says he is ultimately responsible for the security lapses. Some blame Congress for not following through on some of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
Richard Ben-Veniste was a member of that independent bipartisan panel, and he's in the studio. Welcome to the program.
Mr. RICHARD BEN-VENISTE (Former Member, 9/11 Commission): Good morning.
HANSEN: The 9/11 Commission was set up to find out what security failures led to the 2001 terrorists attacks. It made recommendations on what the government needed to do to prevent more attacks. What grade would you give Congress for implementing those recommendations?
Mr. BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think we're pretty good except for, of course, Congress reforming itself in its oversight, but we knew that would be the most difficult of all of our recommendations. But, in this case, I think the structure is there to do a better job. And, in fact, in many respects, we have seen al-Qaida trying to be much more creative than they had been before, and so I think there's some credit for that. Of course, there was a failure here to keep Abdulmutallab off of the airline. And that is a mistake that must be corrected.
HANSEN: Do you think there is one significant recommendation that was not addressed by Congress that could have prevented this attempted attack?
Mr. BEN-VENISTE: Im not sure I would lay this at the foot of Congress. But with respect to our recommendations for screening passengers, particularly passengers who transit through airports in Western Europe to travel to the United States, that was a very important recommendation that we needed to be much more careful about how we screen for individuals coming from Third World countries.
The other was individuals and connecting the dots of connections. Now, Anwar Awlaki, who has emerged from both the Hansen episode and this episode...
HANSEN: And thats the Fort Hood shooting.
Mr. BEN-VENISTE: Yes. He is a Svengali of recruitment. He is the Pied Piper of these new suicide bombers. And so anyone who is connected to al-Awlaki should be considered radioactive.
We devoted a fair amount of space in our final report on the 9/11 Commission to this man, who was in the United States and who had contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers: Al-Hasmi and Mihdhar. So, this man and his connections both in the United States when he was here and, of course, anything he has been doing since, all of his connections have to be reexamined.
HANSEN: Im speaking with Richard Ben-Veniste, who was a member of the 9/11-Commission.
Overall, do you think that the intelligence bureaucracy is too big? I mean, the system is actually too big.
Mr. BEN-VENISTE: No, I dont think it's too big. I think it needs to be as focused as possible. I think we are collecting a tremendous amount of information, as we need to, in order to be able to anticipate what our adversaries are doing. And in this regard: We need to be sharper, and we need to be focused, and we need to be smarter than they.
This was a wakeup call for us. We dodged a bullet here. But it also showed that our adversary is capable of making mistakes. This technology they're using is tricky. It's unreliable and we got lucky here. We need to make our improvements before they make theirs. And this departure of our president from the politics of fear and the kind of thinking that was so prevalent in the last administration that urged America to be afraid - be very afraid - this is not what we're about.
I've got a big sign in my office that comes from the Brits, who were under the most horrendous terrorist bombing attack during World War II on a nightly basis - buzz bombs, bombers coming over the channel. And the sign says, "Stay calm. Carry on." And I think there's a part of that that this president needs to help lead our country about, that we need to be resilient, there will be instances where terrorists get through. And yet we need to learn that lesson and to be able to deal with these episodes without all of this partisan craziness that we're seeing.
We're not perfect and from time to time there will be mistakes. But I think the system is correct. We are an open society. We dont want to change that about ourselves. We dont want to live in some kind of police state because of this threat. If we do that, our adversaries will have defeated us without taking another life.
HANSEN: Richard Ben-Veniste served on the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and is now a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown, and he came into our Washington studio. Thank you so much.
Mr. BEN-VENISTE: You're very welcome, Liane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.