op-ed: The Lesson of 9/11

The Free Lance-Star

Fredericksburg VA
September 11, 2011 12:15 am

As we pause to reflect upon the unspeakable horrors we witnessed 10 years ago today–and the incredible courage of the first responders at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93–I cannot help but think back to 1994, when I first began to study homeland security.

The Air Force had selected me for a one-year national security fellowship. I was to spend the year thinking and writing about national security in the 21st century. When I arrived at the Matthew B. Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh, I had a vague notion for a topic–asymmetric warfare–but nothing specific.

I did know that one of the most important lessons current and future adversaries have learned from Desert Storm is that anyone who chooses to fight the United States head-on will lose. However, this doesn’t mean adversaries can’t challenge the U.S.; they just have to do so with unconventional methods. My research into these unconventional methods led me to examine how small nations and even some non-state actors could threaten our homeland using asymmetric warfare–in particular biological and nuclear terrorism.

By 1999, I was teaching a graduate course in homeland security at the National War College in Washington. This was a challenge: We didn’t know if any students would sign up for such a course, and there were no textbooks, virtually no journal articles, and little interest in the subject within the military, law-enforcement, intelligence, and public-health communities.

My first class of the fall semester in 2001 was scheduled for the afternoon of Sept. 11. I never made it to class that day.

For years afterward, people would ask if I was surprised by the attacks. My answer: No. I was shocked, but not surprised. I was shocked that people would deliberately kill large numbers of innocent civilians, but I was not surprised that there are people in the world who hate America and have the means to bring war to our homeland.

Several years later, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, told us that our greatest mistake had been “a failure of imagination.” I was as guilty as all the rest. I had never imagined a scenario where people would hijack airplanes and turn them into powerful weapons.

I haven’t forgotten Hamilton and Kean’s warning, and I worry about it on this 10th anniversary of 9/11. America is once again falling victim to a failure of imagination. That failure is directly linked to another warning of the 9/11 commissioners: “What if the worst people in the world obtain the worst weapons in the world?”

Congress created a bipartisan commission to investigate the likelihood of such an event and to offer recommendations on how to prevent it. In 2009, I was director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former U.S. Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.). The commission’s unanimous conclusion: It is possible to prevent nuclear terrorism if the nations of the world took “urgent and decisive actions.”

Preventing nuclear terrorism is not easy, but it is simple. All we have to do is “locate, lock down, and eliminate weapons-grade nuclear material.” Terrorists do not have the capability to enrich uranium or make plutonium; they can only buy it or steal it. If we successfully “lock it up,” there will be no mushroom cloud over an American city.

On the other hand, the biotechnical revolution has advanced at such a rapid pace that we cannot prevent acts of bioterrorism. That was the unanimous conclusion of the nine bipartisan WMD commissioners. Deadly pathogens, such as anthrax, plague, and tularemia, are readily available in nature. A small team of individuals with graduate-level training in several key disciplines, using equipment readily available for purchase on the Internet, could take naturally occurring pathogens and produce sophisticated bioweapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of our citizens.

The clock is ticking. It is only a matter of time before America experiences a large-scale bio-event. It could be an act of bioterrorism, or it could be a natural pandemic. Will we be prepared to respond, or will we once again be guilty of a failure of imagination?

When the WMD Commission disbanded in February 2010, Sens. Graham and Talent and I created a research organization (WMD Center) to continue our work. Our goal is to help our leaders understand the threat of bioterrorism, and explain what can be done to prevent it from becoming a WMD.

On Oct. 13, the WMD Center will release its report card on America’s bio- response capabilities. Sens. Graham and Talent and I hope that this grade will be better than the “F” assigned by the WMD Commission in January 2010.

A nation that is properly prepared for response can remove bioterrorism from the category of “weapon of mass destruction.” Bioterrorism will always be a threat, but with diligence, we can mitigate its potential. Think “truck bomb,” rather than a catastrophic event that would change the course of history.

A new movie has been released: “Contagion.” Yes, it’s Hollywood, but the science depicted in the movie is very real. The story, albeit fictional, clearly demonstrates why America needs to improve its bio-response capabilities. Whether the pandemic comes from terrorists or Mother Nature,

America must improve its capabilities to rapidly diagnosis disease and quickly produce vaccines and therapeutics that are safe and effective. America must also increase the surge capacity of our medical-delivery system. Doing so will be neither cheap nor easy, but achieving these capabilities is what we call “no-regret investments.” Whether or not we experience an act of bioterrorism, these improvements will be of great benefit to our children and grandchildren.

The question that is foremost in my mind today: Will America learn the lesson of 9/11 before it’s too late?


Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (ret) is the CEO of the WMD Center (wmdcenter.org), a Senior Fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, and the author of “Our Own Worst Enemy” (Grand Central, 2007).

About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
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2 Responses to op-ed: The Lesson of 9/11

  1. Troy Franklin says:

    I recently sat through a briefing in my Homeland Security studies and would welcome some feedback to my comments that follow. The discussion was on the differences in biological agents, programs, types, uses, and effects.  The instructor conveyed some great points on the effectiveness and impacts, versus media hype, perception and sensationalism that is drawn to these agents. While it is important not to downplay the threats and hazards posed by these weapons, the greatest actual threat they pose is through psychological means.  Fear and ignorance are the greatest enemies in this arena, and solid leadership is required to ensure that citizens get the right information in order to avoid second and third order effects in the form of mass hysteria, accidents, casualties, and property damage.  He made it clear as to why these types of weapons and agents have not been used more in the aftermath of 9/11.  The boomerang effect, fragility, moral implications, and lack of immediate effects to draw media attention provide some great insights as to why the United States has not seen more biological weapon attacks. With all of these points considered, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense must still remain vigilant to these and other chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive attacks. While the impacts and probability of these attacks can be low, the instructor did make a point to remind the audience that terrorist are still attempting to acquire this capability. What are your thoughts about this subject and comments made?

    • Troy,

      I agree, bioterrorism fits in the category of lower probability/higher consequence. The problem is that is gets easier every day. I am frequently asked why it hasn’t happened yet (on a large scale). There are several answers, but the best is in the form of a question:

      We began flying passenger jets in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, they were quite common. Why did it take four decades for terrorists to use them as weapons? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that 9/11 changed the threat equation, not only for you, but for your children and great grand children. The same will be true for bioterrorism. It is not a high probability, but it will be a game changer.

      What we do know for sure is that a reasonably well-funded terrorist organization can develop the capability to produce and deliver bioweapons capable of killing tens of thousands.


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