Roger Cressey can recall with great precision the moment, ten years ago, when the homeland security mission came to life out of the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
“It was the magnitude and the gravity of what we were dealing with, literally when the towers were crumbling, realizing that the world had changed and that our government – our nation – had changed,” said Cressey, who served as the Deputy for Counterterrorism on the National Security Council on 9/11.
Cressey had just arrived at the White House after the second plane had struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center and evacuation orders had gone out to all major government buildings in the Washington, D.C. area. “When I got to the situation room, we were faced with that first important question of what are the facts, and what are we dealing with,” recalled Cressey.
But the fog of war quickly settled over Washington and New York, leaving Cressey and others in the Situation Room bracing for the impact of a third hijacked airplane they all believed was five minutes away and heading for the White House. The president’s situation room team decided to stay.
Although the chaos and confusion of what was unfolding left little time for reflection, Cressey recalls “a sense that now the United States is fully going to go after this threat in a way that many of us were trying to get the government to do before 9/11.”
Nobody ever imagined that ten years later the nation would still be dealing with a serious threat from al-Qaeda–or how dramatically the federal government would be reorganized to cope with such threats. Not even John Gannon.
Pre-9/11 Intel, Culture, Sharing
Few people in or out of government on 9/11 understood al-Qaeda better than Gannon. During the more than two decades leading up to the 9/11 attacks, Gannon had served in numerous positions throughout the CIA, eventually becoming the Deputy Director for Intelligence – a position that entailed responsibility for the agency’s analysts and production of the President’s Daily Brief.
“We were very familiar with Osama bin Laden,” said Gannon. “In my inbox on a daily basis I was getting a lot of reporting on al-Qaeda. But the best judgment that I could put together consulting with the analysts who worked for me was that Osama bin Laden was determined to attack the United States but most likely U.S. interests abroad,” he said. “The real question is what evidence do you have and what is the real-time threat behind it. I don’t think we ever had hard evidence about al-Qaeda’s actual operational plans.”
See Breaking Gov’s exclusive mini-documentary on the birth and evolution of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as seen through eyes of three men who were present at its creation: the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security; the deputy for counterterrorism on the National Security Council, and the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence. Each brings a unique perspective on the challenges facing the DHS, its performance to date, and the evolution of the terrorist threat that ignited the largest U.S. government reorganization in half a century.
But even if the CIA had developed enough actionable intelligence to predict and possibly prevent the 9/11 attacks, there’s little question about the federal government’s pre-9/11 inability to share such information. And according to Gannon, those challenges were not only cultural, as many in the media continue to focus on.
“CIA and NSA [National Security Agency] were always the most protective of their sources and their information,” said Gannon, referring to the former’s concern about exposing human sources and the latter’s paranoia about protecting its technical means of intercepting enemy communications. But it was the relationship between law enforcement and the intelligence community where information sharing became problematic.
The first couple of months [and] years it was like pulling teeth without Novocain. It was pretty painful.”- Tom Ridge
According to Gannon, “there was always a natural sensitivity on the part of the FBI that we not go after their sources to be used in threat assessments that would in fact endanger the process of investigation that would bring people to court.”
This “natural tension,” as Gannon describes it, remains an issue today. “In some respects, the fundamentals – the concern about the FBI and its sources and the intelligence community having different standards for evidence continues to be a challenge.”
Re-Configuring For Homeland Security
A few days after the attacks of 9/11, then Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge received a call from Vice President Dick Cheney. The President, Cheney said, wanted to discuss a new position at the White House that was being created in response to the obvious need to better coordinate government security efforts in the new War on Terrorism. Ridge took the call after attending a funeral and arrived at the White House the next day for a meeting that would lead to the creation years later of the Department of Homeland Security.
“There was no mention of…a Department of Homeland Security,” recalled Ridge. “I was going to be the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, we were going to write a national strategy and that was it. Ironically, we wrote the actual job description after I said to the President I would take the job.”
It was that initial national strategy that would lead to the creation in 2003 of the DHS. Almost immediately, critics pointed to the formation of what they called an unnecessary and unmanageable bureaucracy. “It was not as if we created an entirely new bureaucracy” out of the roughly 177,000 employees that were brought under the DHS umbrella, said Ridge. “We reconfigured them.”
All of the agencies that became part of the new DHS had some function related to border security, said Ridge. Although some agencies were “the most muscular” in terms of their maturity and capabilities, “they all had their own procurement systems, human resources systems, their own IT systems, and their own way of budgeting.” And as the initial planning for the DHS took shape, Ridge and other officials discovered, to their surprise, multiple studies and recommendations from Congress calling for a central Department of Homeland Security.
A Work In Progress
After 9/11 and retiring from the CIA, Gannon was called back to service by Congress, which had established the first ever Select Committee on Homeland Security. Gannon would serve as the Committee’s staff director and gain a new perspective on the political dysfunction that pervades so much of government to this day.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the DHS, “was a very ambitious piece of legislation,” recalled Gannon. “I think the federal government, particularly the White House and the Congress, had a great deal of difficulty aligning their priorities for this department,” said Gannon. “Our goal on the committee was simply to help the department do an authorization bill, which is about priorities. It was a heck of a struggle,” said Gannon.
“And it’s still a work in progress eight years later,” said Cressey. That’s a generous assessment, some critics would say, who maintain the department remains a “boondoggle.”
But in retrospect, said Cressey, that should not surprise anybody who understands what it takes to create a new agency like DHS, said Cressey. All new agencies have experienced “fits and starts,” said Cressey, referring particularly to the Department of Defense, which didn’t fully realize its management potential until the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986.
When asked about his perceptions of the initial challenges faced by Ridge as the new Department took shape, Cressey’s insights reveal a more challenging environment than some might realize. “Like many people who came into [government] then, their intent and objectives were right,” said Cressey.
But what Ridge “found out very quickly is that the government bureaucracy is a bit like a [human] body, where if a new organization is thrust into that body it’s sometimes treated like a virus, and the body’s defenses work together to try and eliminate that virus.”
During Breaking Gov’s interview with Ridge, the nation’s first Secretary of Homeland Security acknowledged the difficulty of getting agencies to work together, particularly on information sharing. “We’re far, far more advanced than we were ten years ago,” said Ridge. “The first couple of months [and] years it was like pulling teeth without Novocain. It was pretty painful.”
In many respects, DHS is still in its adolescence, said Cressey. “Are they doing a better job? There’s no doubt. After eight years, policies, procedures, staffing are much better,” he said.
But there are still important questions in need of study, according to Cressey. “Is the mission that it’s now running the proper mission? Are all the entities that were kluged together at its inception the right mix?”