We could have been more prepared for Sept. 11

A full two years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America, a government report warned in an eerily prescient way of events to come.

A bipartisan commission chaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart identified the new security threats looming for Americans and recommended measures to help forestall them.

The report did not specify terrorist-driven planes flying into New York skyscrapers. But it did predict "nontraditional" attacks on the American homeland "from which our military superiority will not entirely protect us." It warned that "Americans will likely die on American soil, in large numbers."

It was also right on the mark in predicting bioterrorist attacks: "The most serious threat to our security may consist of unannounced attacks on American cities by subnational groups using genetically engineered pathogens."

And it warned of yet another stage in the terrorists' assault: their possible movement into cyberspace and space itself. One possibility: "A well-planned cyberattack on the air traffic control system on the East Coast of the United States, as some 200 commercial aircraft are trying to land safely in a morning's rain and fog."

Like most Americans, I did not read the report by the US Commission on National Security/21st Century when it was first published. I've just finished its 163 pages, but we might all have been a lot better off if we'd paid attention to it earlier.

The Rudman-Hart commissioners were not the only ones uttering warning cries from the wilderness. Another former senator, Sam Nunn, has consistently given those with ears attuned a heads-up about our vulnerability to biological terrorism.

We owe these early warners a debt of gratitude as steam mounts for a congressional inquiry into why the Sept. 11 attacks were not forecast or prevented. The fact is, they were forecast (generally, though not specifically). The problem is, they were not prevented.

What of the recommendations the Rudman-Hart commission made two years ago to combat terrorism? Says one member of the commission I talked to: "Without the events of Sept. 11, nothing much would have happened at all. Even now, things are chugging along slowly."

One of the commission's most notable suggestions on which there has been action is the appointment of a director of homeland security. But the commission recommended a whole new supra-agency with sweeping authority to cut through bureaucratic delays and lack of coordination between government entities with responsibility for homeland defense. Under this plan, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol would be transferred to the new agency.

The newly appointed director, Tom Ridge, trying to coordinate the efforts of some 40 involved agencies, has nothing like the authority the commission envisaged as necessary for defending against terrorism.

Another commission recommendation on which there has been some movement involves the National Guard. Guardsmen have been called into action since Sept. 11, but this is far from the revitalized role, with appropriate training and equipment, to assume "homeland security as a primary mission," that the Rudman-Hart commission recommended.

On other commission recommendations, there has been little action. The protection of space and cyberspace was deemed to be of high priority, essential to the US military's ability to function effectively, but the commission found national policy "adrift" in this "increasingly critical environment."

Experts I have talked to say that while many firewalls are in place, and while Y2K preventive measures have protected many computer networks, attempted penetration by amateur hackers, and possibly ill-meaning terrorists, continues apace.

As for space, while individuals can conceivably interfere with our military and other satellites, it would probably take the resources of a foreign power to manufacture a killer satellite that could take out an American satellite critical to our military operations.

The Rudman-Hart commissioners urged an international ban on the creation, transfer, and weaponization of biological pathogens, and cooperative programs to neutralize existing stockpiles of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

They foresaw the need for special military units operating with "stealth, speed, range, unprecedented accuracy, lethality, strategic mobility and superior intelligence." They anticipated much of the world "resenting and opposing" the US, urged American coalitions with like-minded nations, and called for constructive US involvement with the United Nations as "an effective instrument for the enhancement of international stability and humanitarian ends."

Of necessity, and ever-so slowly, some of these reactive measures against terrorism are coming to pass. There is no guarantee that had they been in place earlier, the tragedies of Sept. 11 would not have taken place. But here is a lesson that when wise and concerned people warn of approaching peril, we should pay more attention to our defenses.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.