Seventeen prominent players reflect on the decades of war they helped wage and the domestic defenses they helped erect.
The sense of vulnerability and fear — yes, terror — was palpable. In the hours and days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the consensus was that more deadly attacks were being prepped. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who then was running the criminal division at the Department of Justice, recalled the psychology of a stunned Washington power structure: “Having seen the World Trade Center collapse, your sense of what the limit is of bad stuff that can happen evaporates.”
He now wishes the country had “taken a deep breath.” Exactly 20 years after the worst terrorist assault in American history slaughtered nearly 3,000 people, the architects of the U.S. response — the men and women inside the White House Situation Room and at the highest levels of the Pentagon, foreign service, spy agencies and Congress — can look back with relief that another large-scale attack on American soil never took place. But that fact has often been used as a blanket justification for many of the most far-reaching, controversial and even harmful decisions made in the aftermath of the attacks — the vast expansion of the surveillance state; covert operations to kill or capture suspected terrorists, and in some cases torture them; and the invasion first of Afghanistan, where the attacks were planned, and then Iraq, where they were not. Those two wars cost trillions of dollars and the lives of 7,064 American troops, more than double the number that perished on 9/11, and led to a crisis of military veteran suicides, totalling more than 30,000. Ultimately, many thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan perished in conflicts that were either launched in response to 9/11 or grew out of their consequences.
This summer, as the United States began to wind down its military operations in Afghanistan, POLITICO approached nearly two dozen of the most consequential architects of the post-9/11 world to ask them to reflect on the decades of war they helped wage and the domestic defenses they helped erect. We asked them what they think they got right and pressed them to speak candidly about what they would have done differently. Some of the most prominent players, among them President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who was both national security adviser and secretary of State, declined to be interviewed. But in all, 17 agreed to speak on the record. Together, their testimony offers a unique collection of unfiltered perspectives never before gathered in one place.
“Overreach” is a word they use often to describe a nation-building effort that notched tactical and even historic successes — like empowering women in Afghanistan — but also came to be seen as occupations that fueled more violence. Many of these former officials regret the nearly limitless scope of the “Global War on Terror” that lumped together often competing Islamic terrorist groups and outlaw nations that played no direct role in 9/11. And they rue the long-term damage to American standing in the Muslim world from seemingly unending military occupations and a morally and legally compromised terrorist detention system.
Taken together, the frank assessment of the principals of the 9/11 era offers the possibility of preventing some of the missteps of the past if the inconceivable should ever become real once again.
“Nations are like people,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who worked in the senior levels of the Pentagon after 9/11 and went on to be the top commander of NATO. “They get some things right, they get some things wrong. The measure of any nation is whether it learns both from the mistakes and the successes.”