By former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman
U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2004
Forwarded by BGen R. Clements, USAF (Ret.)
John Lehman, a current member of the Kean Commission investigating the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, addressed the U.S. Naval Institute 130th Annual Meeting and Annapolis Naval History Symposium on 31 March. Here is an edited version of his remarks:
The subject here is naval history and the naval history to come. This is particularly relevant, given the subjects I've been immersed in over the last year-the so-called war on terrorism and the attacks of 9/11, what went wrong, and what we should do to fix it. I have learned that what these two institutions - the U.S. Naval Institute and the U.S. Naval Academy - stand for are at the center of what we face as a nation going forward.
We are at a juncture today that really is more of a threshold, even more of a watershed, than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was in 1941. We are currently in a war, but it is not a war on terrorism. In fact, that has been a great confusion, and the sooner we drop that term, the better. This would be like President Franklin Roosevelt saying in World War II, “We are engaged in a war against kamikazes and blitzkrieg.” Like them, terrorism is a method, a tool, a weapon that has been used against us. And part of the reason we suffered such a horrific attack is that we were not prepared.
Let's not kid ourselves. Some very smart people defeated every single defense this country had, and defeated them easily, with confidence and arrogance. There are many lessons we must learn from this.
We were not prepared intellectually. Those of us in the national security field still carried the baggage of the Cold War. We thought in concepts of coalition warfare and the Warsaw Pact. When we thought of terrorism, we thought only of state-sponsored terrorism, which is why the immediate reaction of many in our government agencies after 9/11 was: Which state did it? Saddam, it must have been Saddam. We had failed to grasp, for a variety of reasons, the new phenomenon that had emerged in the world. This was not state-sponsored terrorism. This was religious war.
This was the emergence of a transnational enemy driven by religious fervor and fanaticism. Our enemy is not terrorism. Our enemy is violent, Islamic fundamentalism. None of our government institutions was set up with receptors, or even vocabulary, to deal with this. So we left ourselves completely vulnerable to a concerted attack.
Where are we today? I'd like to say we have fixed these problems, but we haven't. We have very real vulnerabilities. We have not diminished in any way the fervor and ideology of our enemy. We are fighting them in many areas of the world, and I must say with much better awareness of the issues and their nature. We're fighting with better tools. But I cannot say we are now safe from the kind of attack we saw on 9/11. I think we are much safer than we were on 9/11; the ability of our enemies to launch a concerted, sophisticated attack is much less than it was then. Still, we're totally vulnerable to the kinds of attacks we've seen in Madrid, for instance.
We face a very sophisticated and intelligent enemy who has been trained, in many cases, in our universities and gone to school on our methods, learned from their mistakes, and continued to use the very nature of our free society and its aversion to intrusion in privacy and discrimination to their benefit.
For example, today it is still a prohibited offense for an airline to have two people of the same ethnic background interviewed at one time, because that is discrimination. Our airline security is still full of holes. Our ability to carry out covert operations abroad is only marginally better than it was at the time of 9/11. A huge amount of fundamental cultural and institutional change must be carried out in the United States before we can effectively deal with the nature of the threat. Today, probably 50 or more states have schools that are teaching jihad, preaching, recruiting, and training. We have absolutely no successful programs even begun to remediate against those efforts.
It's very important that people understand the complexity of this threat. We have had to institute new approaches to protecting our civil liberties the way we authorize surveillance, the way we conduct our immigration and naturalization policies, and the way we issue passports.
That's only the beginning. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize the problem, to recognize that for every jihadist we kill or capture as we carry out an aggressive and positive policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere another 50 are being trained in schools and mosques around the world.
This problem goes back a long way. We have been asleep. Just by chance about six months ago, I picked up a book by V. S. Naipaul, one of the great English prose writers. I love to read his short stories and travelogues. The book was titled Among the Believers (New York: Vintage, 1982) and was an account of his travels in Indonesia, where he found that Saudi-funded schools and mosques were transforming Indonesian society from a very relaxed, syncretist Islam to a jihadist fundamentalist fanatical society, all paid for with Saudi Arabian funding. Nobody paid attention.
Presidents in four administrations put their arms around Saudi ambassadors, ignored the Wahhabi jihadism, and said these are our eternal friends.
We have seen throughout the last 20 years a kind of head-in-the-sand approach to national security in the Pentagon. We were comfortable with the existing concept of what the threat was, what threat analysis was, and how we derived our requirements, still using the same old tools we all grew up with. We paid no attention to the real nature of this emerging threat, even though there were warning signs. Many will recall with pain what we went through in the Reagan administration in 1983, when the Marine barracks were bombed in Beirut - 241 Marines and Navy corpsmen were killed. We immediately got an intercept from NSA [National Security Agency], a total smoking gun from the foreign ministry of Iran, ordering the murder of our Marines.
Nothing was done to retaliate. Instead, we did exactly what the terrorists wanted us to do, which was to withdraw. Osama bin Laden has cited this as one of his dawning moments. The vaunted United States is a paper tiger; Americans are afraid of casualties; they run like cowards when attacked; and they don't even bother to take their dead with them This was a seminal moment for Osama.
After that, we had our CIA station chief kidnapped and tortured to death. Nothing was done. Then, we had our Marine Colonel [William R.] Higgins kidnapped and publicly hanged. Nothing was done. We fueled and made these people aware of the tremendous effectiveness of terrorism as a tool of jihad. It worked. They chased us out of one place after another, because we would not retaliate.
The Secretary of Defense at the time has said he never received those intercepts. That's an example of one of the huge problems our commission has uncovered. We have allowed the intelligence community to evolve into a bureaucratic archipelago of baronies in the Defense Department, the CIA, and 95 other different intelligence units in our government. None of them talked to one another in the same computerized system. There was no systemic sharing. Some will recall the Phoenix memo and the fact that there were people in the FBI saying, “Hey, there are young Arabs learning to fly and they don't want to learn how to take off or land. Maybe we should look into them.” It went nowhere.
We had watch lists with 65,000 terrorists' names on them, created by a very sophisticated system in the State Department called Tip-Off. That existed before 9/11, but nobody in the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] bothered to look at it. The FAA had 12 names on its no-fly list. The State Department had a guy on its list named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was already under indictment for his role in planning the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The State Department issued him a visa. I could go on and on.
Two big lessons glare out from what our investigations have discovered so far. Number one, in our government bureaucracy today there is no accountability. Since 9/11-the greatest failure of American defenses in the history of our country, at least since the burning of Washington in 1814-only one person has been fired.
He is a hero, in my judgment: [retired Vice] Admiral John Poindexter]. He got fired because of an excessive zeal to catch these bastards. But he was the only one fired. Not any of the 19 officers lost their jobs at Immigration for allowing the 19 terrorists-9 who presented grossly falsified passports-to enter the country. One Customs Service officer stopped the 20th terrorist, at risk to his own career.
Do you think he's been promoted?
Not a chance. That is the culture we've allowed to develop, except in the Navy. We've all felt the pain over the last year of the number of skippers who have been relieved in the U.S. Navy: two on one cruiser in one year. That's a problem for us. It's also something we should be mightily proud of, because it stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S. government.
In the United States Navy, we still have accountability. It's bred into our culture. And what we stand for here has to be respread into our government and our nation. Actions have consequences, and people must be held accountable.
Customs officer Jose Melendez-Perez stopped the 20th terrorist, who was supposed to be on Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. Probably because of the shorthanded muscle on that team, the passengers were able to overcome the terrorists. Melendez-Perez did this at great personal risk, because his colleagues and his supervisors told him, “You can't do this. This guy is an Arab ethnic. You're racially profiling. You're going to get in real trouble, because it's against Department of Transportation policy to racially profile.”
He said, “I don't care. This guy's a bad guy. I can see it in his eyes.” As he sent this guy back out of the United States, the guy turned around to him and said, “I'll be back.”
You know, he is back. He's in Guantanamo. We captured him in Afghanistan. Do you think Melendez-Perez got a promotion? Do you think he got any recognition? Do you think he is doing any better than the 19 of his time-serving, unaccountable colleagues?
Don't think any bit of it. We have no accountability, but we're going to restore it.
The other glaring lack that has been discovered throughout the investigation is in leadership. Leadership is the willingness to accept the burdens and the risks, the potential embarrassment, and the occasional failure of leading men and women. It is saying: We will do it this way. I won't let that guy in. I will do this and I'll take the consequences. That's what we stand for here. That's what the crucible of the U.S. Naval Academy has carried on now since 1845, and what the U.S. Naval Institute has carried on for 130 years and hasn't compromised.
We all should be very proud of it. We need leadership now more than ever. We need to respread this culture, which is so rare today, into the way we conduct our government business, let alone our private business.
Having said all this, I'm very optimistic. We have seen come forward in this investigation people from every part of our bureaucracy to say they screwed up and to tell what went wrong and what we've got to do to change it.
We have an agenda for change. I think we're going to see a very fundamental shift in the culture of our government as a result of this. I certainly hope so. This should be a true wake-up call. We cannot let this be swept under the rug, put on the shelf like one more of the hundreds of other commissions that have gone right into the memory hole. This time, I truly believe it's going to be different.