Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to give back in celebration of all that #PublicMediaGives. Your contribution will be matched $1 for $1.

Post Sept. 11: Why Preventing Terrorism Is Still A Major Challenge


Fifteen years ago, Jane Harman was in her fourth term as a Democratic congresswoman from California. On September 11, 2001, she was walking across the lawn at the U.S. Capitol when she got word of an unfolding horror in New York and at the Pentagon. Harman was the senior Democrat on an intelligence subcommittee whose offices were located inside the Capitol.

JANE HARMAN: We now think that that was the target of the fourth plane that the passengers courageously forced to crash in Pennsylvania. So I was walking there when I got the call about planes crashing into buildings and saw the whole day in real time.

MONTAGNE: In the following decade, Harman played a key role in many of the committees that oversaw national security. She went on to help reform an intelligence community whose agencies couldn't easily communicate with each other before 9/11.

HARMAN: We have strengthened U.S. homeland security - no question that airports and airplanes are safer - not 100 percent - but much safer. We decapitated Osama bin Laden. And we did it in a way that respected the rule of law and the tenets of the Muslim religion - the way he was buried.

And both Presidents Bush and Obama avoided demonizing Muslims, which I think is crucially important. Here's what we haven't done. We haven't figured out how to assert American power in the Middle East in a way that will thwart the threats. It's not just kinetic power - using our military.

It's a narrative of what we stand for that is appealing to those who are deciding whether to strap on suicide vests or take guns into the streets - or to try to fix their broken countries and hopefully to try to help us make America better.

We haven't had an adequate debate about the tradeoffs of security and liberty. Edward Snowden, whom I think did a lot of damage to America, at least has elevated the debate about what we should and should be doing. And we haven't leveled with the American people that terror groups only have to get lucky once. We have to be right 100 percent of the time. And that's not possible.

MONTAGNE: One thing that recent polls have shown, though, is that more Americans - well, than before 9/11 - still think this country could be attacked by terrorists.

HARMAN: Well, I think that's true. Let's discuss kinds of attacks. I think the kind of catastrophic attack we saw on 9/11 - planes flying into buildings - is not likely to happen again. But I can think of things that would cause a lot of damage - things like a dirty bomb, which could be made of materials available in this country.

I can think of a biological attack. But the more likely attacks are small-bore attacks like the Boston marathon attack and like shooters in federal buildings or other buildings - what happened in San Bernardino. Those attacks are virtually impossible to prevent 100 percent of the time.

MONTAGNE: Well, right. I mean, you see this in Europe, as well - homegrown attacks or lone wolf attacks - people who may have been radicalized, practically, overnight or possibly even using that as a cover for their emotional or psychological problems. How do intelligence agencies - and you've been very close to America's intelligence agencies and what they're doing - how do they combat that?

HARMAN: Two ways - it's not just about intelligence agencies. It's - how does our country combat that? Intelligence matters. And people leave trails on the internet. And we can find some of these people. They also exhibit strange behavior.

And teachers and families can alert us to them. We need to have a narrative that beats the narrative of the glamour of strapping on a suicide vest and dying at age 18. And that's where we have not been fully effective.

Our president needs to communicate what we stand for and what we're trying to achieve around the world. President Obama, I think, tried to do that in his early Cairo speech and then was overwhelmed by a series of events. Hillary Clinton, in the debate on the aircraft carrier this week, said that we need a narrative.

But she didn't spell out what it is. I think it is imperative that that narrative be surfaced by the candidates and that voters who want to be informed can assess what they think.

MONTAGNE: One thing that's very different from September 11, 2001 and today is the internet.

HARMAN: Well, the internet and social media are huge drivers of good things and bad things. Remember, the Arab Spring started with social media. A fruit vendor immolated himself in Tunisia. And it created an enormous groundswell in many countries and toppled their leaderships.

But what are some other drivers? Globalization - and we have a global economy. And people move. And currency moves across borders.

MONTAGNE: And the civil war in Syria, which has been going on now - it's into its sixth year. That's feeding terrorism. That's a new event.

HARMAN: Well, failed and failing states fuel terrorism. And we have more failed states or failing states than we did on 9/11. Syria's certainly one of them. And the catastrophe there is that a quarter of the country has been completely dislocated or killed, that the refugee outflow is destabilizing the countries around Syria.

Guess what? Jordan and Lebanon may join the list of failed or failing states. So the number's growing larger. And I wouldn't just confine the problem to Syria.

MONTAGNE: So there - the challenge is still quite great.

HARMAN: Yes. We've made progress in certain respects. And we should celebrate that progress. But there's a long way to go. And I just mentioned refugees. A generation of Americans have grown up since 9/11.

But we are losing a generation of kids who are now refugees destabilized by the wars in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. And those kids are not going to school. And they could become the feeder system for another generation of terrorists.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

HARMAN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Former Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman now heads the Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.