Like nearly all of my contemporaries in the national security law space, 9/11 was a formative professional experience for me, back then a low-level legal assistant at Main Justice, the Justice Department’s headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Since leaving government service more than a decade ago, I’ve from time to time been grateful for the space on Lawfare to write a few words reflecting on 9/11. You can find them here, here, here, here and here. In years past, I’ve looked primarily to the text of the 9/11 Commission Report to try to glean lessons for the national security policy community and for law students who were part of a seminar I used to teach at Georgetown Law on intelligence law, policy and reform. Given the 20th anniversary of the attacks, and the now-complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, this might seem like an appropriate time to reflect anew on the 20 years since. No doubt, there will be reviews, studies and probably even investigations. But for me, given the past year and a half of a pandemic that has killed a 9/11-worth of Americans day after day, witnessed a violent assault on the Capitol and a summer of climate-related disasters, the present moment feels less like a time to scour the past 20 years for lessons and instead a time to close the chapter on the 9/11 era. Although international terrorism will remain a priority, the country has a wider range of important national and homeland security challenges to deal with. And while countering international terrorism will remain a critical function of the national and homeland security communities in the long term, they need to adapt more quickly to the challenges that threaten Americans’ safety and the effective functioning of the nation’s constitutional democracy.
If national security is fundamentally about protecting the continuation of our constitutional democracy, then the national security community should be focusing on threats here at home as seriously as threats from abroad.
I did not believe then, and I don’t assess now, that 9/11 and al-Qaeda presented an existential threat to the United States. It did, however, present a substantial danger of death and violence that was deeply unsettling to the country and, not insignificantly, the responsibility of the federal government to prevent future such events. The fear of continued militant Islamist terrorism was a very real threat that has been subject to some minimization and under-appreciation in contemporary discussion and commentary surrounding the end of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan. My experience that day did, however, leave me with the observation that the federal government was not as secure as I might have previously thought. If the continuity and functioning of the government were not in grave danger after 9/11, its leaders and institutions were certainly knocked a bit off balance.
Read the full article from Lawfare.