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Podcast: A safer America 20 years after 9/11? Michael Chertoff and Rory Stewart discuss

A 9/11 memorial beams of light over the New York skyline -  A safer America 20 years after 9/11?

TRANSCRIPT: A safer America 20 years after 9/11? Michael Chertoff and Rory Stewart discuss

Michael Chertoff:

During my tenure in the Bush Administration, there wasn't after 911 a single American killed in the US by terrorists, and we stopped a lot of terrorists. Now, could we have done less? Maybe. But less might have resulted in attacks? So it's hard to criticize that.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello, and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. Here you'll find extended versions of interviews from my show on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, 20 years have passed since 911. But is the world any safer? As the Taliban regains control in Afghanistan, was the war on terror a failure, or has it kept America safe from harm? I speak to two people who have firsthand experience crafting policy since the towers fell. First, Michael Chertoff, who led the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, and later Rory Stewart, who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and served as the UK's Secretary of State for International Development. Let's get right to it.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. At Walmart, we are committed to creating opportunities for veterans. That's why we've hired more than 250,000 since 2013, and more than 27,000 military spouses in 2020 alone. Now we're launching a program to help veterans and military spouses find employment, gain an education, and grow veteran businesses. Learn more at WalmartFindafuture.com.

Ian Bremmer:

Michael Chertoff served as Secretary of Homeland Security under former President Bush. Thank you, sir for joining us on GZERO World.

Michael Chertoff:

Good to be on.

Ian Bremmer:

So 20 years after 911, how did that moment in American history change the way we think about national security for our country?

Michael Chertoff:

Well, I think writ large, it made us very conscious that in a global world with global transportation and global communication, the oceans do not protect us from foreign enemies. And wars are not optional anymore. They may come looking for you to kind of paraphrase Trotsky. From a personal standpoint, Ian, I was at that time the Head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, which in the days before there was a Homeland Security Department, DOJ had the responsibility to manage domestic terrorism. And so I was actually on my way into the office on a car phone and my deputy told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. And like many people, I assumed it was a small plane with a pilot who got confused. But then as we talked and he said, "a second plane hit." I said, "This is not an accident."

So we went over to the FBI. As we went over, we heard about the plane hitting the Pentagon, and we went to the Strategic Intelligence and Operations Center where I saw Bob Mueller, who was an old friend and had just been appointed FBI director. And we then spent the next day, week and months trying to make sure this didn't happen again. And the first step was to figure out who did it and where there might be threats that day or the next day. And I make that point because many people look back and say, "Well, we haven't had a 911 since 20 years ago." But that was not inevitable. That was a result of work, worry and a very, very considerable effort by a lot of people.

And in fact, on that day, I heard about the fourth plane being hijacked, and I thought actually he may have been shot down by fighters. I later learned it was the heroic passengers. There was a rumor about bombs and taxi cabs in Washington. There was a transponder that went off in a fifth plane that made us believe it was hijacked. It turned out to be a false alarm. So I say this, again to indicate that the outcome was by no means obvious, and we were worried this was just act one in a very, very long and unpleasant play.

Ian Bremmer:

We all think about worst case scenarios. We all game them out, and certainly you were doing that in your former position. But when the news came on that morning in September, was this worse than anything you thought realistically would likely occur on your watch?

Michael Chertoff:

I would say yes, although, I mean, I could certainly imagine worse things happening. But frankly, the terrorist attacks we had seen prior to 2001 had been on American facilities overseas. So we had the bombings in East Africa. We had efforts to attack a ship in, I think it was the Persian Gulf. There was, for example, the Bojinka plot in the 90s, which would've hijacked planes in Asia. But we hadn't had a major attack by global terrorists in the United States. So while it was conceivable, I think we were more inclined to worry about a truck bomb or a car bomb or something of that scale. The idea of hijacked planes that would be commandeered would not have seemed a very likely outcome, although I think we did learn that there were some bits of intelligence that suggested that was something being looked at.

Ian Bremmer:

This was a period of time when the United States, I wouldn't say felt invincible, but certainly felt as if it was way on top of the global order. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the European Union had enlarged, NATO had enlarged. How dramatic and how quick was the change in view of America's role in the world, and what did that feel like to you?

Michael Chertoff:

And I hate to do this to him because he's probably heard it many times, but Francis Fukuyama's book, The End of History was a remarkably infelicitous title given what happened on 911. We did think in the 1990s that we were at a inflection point where America was on top, there were no rivals scale, the economy was doing well. We didn't really worry about national security threats. Cyberspace was still kind of a curiosity, not really a major attack vector. And so I think many Americans believed that there might be some small incidents that would occur, but nothing that would threaten the United States in even nearly an existential threat.

And I think the fact that four planes were hijacked that this was a transnational effort and that the World Trade Center came down, which was an iconic building in terms of America's position in the globe, I think that was a very strong shock to the system. And I think a lot of the decisions we made afterwards were based on a reaction that what had been unthinkable had now occurred, and therefore we should discard the idea that something is a black swan and view everything as very much within the realm of risk. And that meant we had to get on top of all these things.

Ian Bremmer:

And I mean, I was in New York City at the time, could see the second tower go down. It certainly felt like the country was suddenly at war from that personal perspective that day. Now, when that happens, of course you need to make sure that that can never happen again. And when overwhelmingly you focus on that never happening again, everything else can get deprioritized and you can focus too narrowly on that. How much of that was, could it have even been on your mind at the time, or was it just overwhelming reaction rally around the flag?

Michael Chertoff:

In the very short term after 911, there was an understandable and appropriate very strong focus on preventing something from happening imminently of that kind of scale. And so we needed to build a system to collect information, to collect intelligence, to examine and inspect what was coming into the country, and to begin to strengthen our critical infrastructure. We also needed to look at even more significant terrorist attacks that might involve weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, biological weapons. All of that was appropriate. I will say that for the first couple years, much of what the intelligence community focused on was of necessity very tactical.

It was literally going through where particular jihadi's might be located, what particular groups might be out there, where there might be laboratories or other imminent threats. I think at some point, obviously we launched the effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that also absorbed a lot of intelligence resources. As we go through the decade and into the next decade, what we begin to see though is a little bit of a failure to appreciate that there will be other threats. And so I think the strategic intelligence effort directed at Russia and China in a way got put in the back burner.

And I remember thinking to myself, "Oh, all those people who took Russian and Chinese in college thinking this was going to be the next big thing when they graduated in 2000, now they wish they had taken Arabic or Urdu." But the truth is now all those graduates in Russian and Chinese studies are very much in demand. And I think the lesson for me is, while sometimes you have to answer the fire alarm immediately, you still need to inspect all the other buildings that might be threatened down the line. You don't have the luxury of only one problem at a time.

Ian Bremmer:

If you could have taken a decision back from the Bush Administration, from a Homeland Security and national security perspective, what would it have been? Would it have been the war in Iraq or would've been something else?

Michael Chertoff:

Well, unfortunately, hindsight gives you an advantage. But I guess I would say the war in Iraq in two senses. First of all, it did distract us from Afghanistan. We may have overestimated our ability to resolve the Afghanistan conflict in a way that would be stable and balanced. And certainly from a resource and attention standpoint, Iraq drained a lot of attention. But I would also say that we were not clear about the mission in Iraq or what would happen after we won.

And the planning for post-war was not what it should have been. The assessment and articulation of goals was not clear. And as a result, it became basically a magnet for all kinds of attacks on Americans, that absorbed more resources, more attention and more patience. The problem with the Iraq is we weren't clear on what our objective was and what it would mean to win. And once we got in there and we had toppled Saddam, there was uncertainty about how long we were going to stay, and how we ought to deal with a disorder there. There was a bit of a sense of, "Well, it's not our problem," but it really was our problem if we were going to stay.

Ian Bremmer:

That's fair enough. What about on the domestic side? I mean, again, obviously trillions of dollars not just spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also spent on homeland security in so many different manifestations inside the United States, both in terms of the Patriot Act and the surveillance, but also the beefed up security, the necessary critical infrastructure investments. What's the one or two there that you say, "We didn't do it right. We had the wrong focus, we overdid it, we overspent." What would you say 20 years on?

Michael Chertoff:

Well, it's a little hard to judge that because in fact, we did not have a significant terrorist attack in the US after 911. In fact, during my tenure in the Bush administration, there wasn't after 911 a single American killed in the US by terrorists. And we stopped a lot of terrorists. And even afterwards there were more attacks that were really just inspired by terrorism, but not any global jihadi's traveling in. So you would have to say that certainly we were successful in patrolling the borders against terrorism and building an intelligence capability to identify terrorists and in hardening some of our infrastructure, like for example, airplanes and the airports. Now, could we have done less? Maybe. But less might have resulted in attacks? So it's hard to criticize that. I think perhaps on the intelligence collection standpoint, once we had kind of calibrated what was out there, I think we might have adjusted it a little bit and maybe been frankly a little bit more transparent in why we were collecting what we were collecting.

But I will say that a lot of the uproar about collection of metadata, which is really nothing more than who the sender of a message is, who the recipient is, and how long its duration was. I think it was slightly overdone, maybe because the scale of it seemed a little bit unaccustomed. But the fact is, one of the things we learned in looking at 911 is that the connectivity among the hijackers was a major factor that we could have used to frustrate the attacks, and therefore looking for those kinds of signs and signals without getting into content had some real value.

Ian Bremmer:

So that makes me want to ask you a very uncomfortable question, even an inhumane one, which is if we haven't had any major Islamic terrorist attacks inside the United States emanating from abroad, and again, I know we've had some lone wolf stuff, San Bernardino and whatnot, I mean, should your initial reaction to that be, "Wow, we did a fantastic job?" Or should it be, "Wow, we probably really overspent?"

Michael Chertoff:

It's not the latter because I'll tell you, we came close in 2005 or maybe was 2006 when we had a plot that was uncovered to fly airplanes from Heathrow to North America and blow a dozen up in midair. And it was very good intelligence work. Some of the things you're talking about that allowed us to detect and stop that so nobody got killed. So the fact that we didn't have a big attack here was not an accident, and there was a deterrent effect, to be honest. Had we been lax, more would've tried at some point they gave up and focused on other things. But that's not an argument against vigilance. It actually validates vigilance.

Ian Bremmer:

So I asked you the question at the beginning about the things that you would've done differently. Looking back at the Bush Administration, you served on the cabinet. But today, if you were in the oval with President Biden and you could give him one piece of advice that he'd take on changing the way the US is governing and leading around the world, what would it be?

Michael Chertoff:

First of all, I would make sure we are talking to and coordinating with our allies. I understand there was a little bit of a disconnect in terms of our decision in Afghanistan where some of our close allies claim they weren't consulted. And I do think it's important to hear what they have to say, because part of what we're trying to do is reassure them that we are back, and they have our confidence, and we have their confidence, and we have each other's backs. And then I think you always have to make sure you're listening to outside voices. For someone who's been in Washington a long time and has a great group of advisors, they've been together and there's a little bit of a bubble that arises when you've worked for 10 or 20 years with people and you all can anticipate the way you think. So once in a while it's a good idea to bring fresh blood in, even contrary views so that you get a reality check on some of your decision-making.

Ian Bremmer:

Secretary Michael Chertoff, trying his best to help us avoid a GZERO World. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Michael Chertoff:

Happy to be here, Ian. Take care.

Ian Bremmer:

And now to Rory Stewart. He wrote the book, The Places in Between. After spending 36 months walking across Afghanistan, he later served as the UK's Secretary of State for international development. He believes President Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal was a costly mistake, and that we could see an increase in Western directed terrorism because of it. Rory Stewart, thank you so much for joining us on GZERO World.

Rory Stewart:

Great to see you. Thank you for having me.

Ian Bremmer:

So with 911 and 20 years passing since that tragedy, do you think today the world is considerably more safe, more secure, versus terrorist threats than we were back then?

Rory Stewart:

I think in some ways, yes, certainly true that we have developed much more comprehensive counter-terrorist infrastructure than we had 20 years ago. In other words, for better or for worse, the equivalence of the FBI, the CIA's Special Forces are able to do far more to focus on terrorism and counter-terrorism. And that has played a significant role in stopping terrorist threats happening. And that also includes a deployment of drones and artificial intelligence and all this kind of stuff. The thing that hasn't dramatically changed over the last 20 years is there are still a very uncomfortable number of very fragile conflict affected states. And there are very striking numbers of people who are still prepared to endorse a jihadist ideology. And the victory in Afghanistan of the Taliban over the last few weeks will have produced a huge morale boost to jihadists around the world from Sahel right the way across who will see this as they did indeed the ISIS victories in Syria and Iraq as a sign that they're on their way back.

Ian Bremmer:

You've been an outspoken critic of the Biden Administration withdrawal from Afghanistan. Tell me why that is.

Rory Stewart:

Because I believe that what we needed in Afghanistan was a light, long-term sustainable footprint, that there was no reason for him to withdraw in this way, that it was unnecessary and catastrophically damaging to Afghanistan and to American interests.

Ian Bremmer:

Catastrophically damaging to American interests. Most Americans, for quite some time have said that they wanted the United States to withdraw completely. And of course, a lot of Americans can't find Afghanistan on a map. I mean, you've spent a lot of time in that country, why use a word that's so freighted?

Rory Stewart:

Let's start firstly from the point of view of Afghans themselves. We've spent 20 years in that country. When I first visited Kabul at the end of the Taliban period, it was a ghost town. It's 300,000 people in a city of 4 million, no cars on the streets bombed out buildings. I and many, many others worked for nearly 20 years to build things up in Afghanistan. And by the end of that period, it was a very, very different place. One of the things, sadly, that I think maybe American and British voters don't realize is how much better Afghanistan had become. There's become a narrative of suggesting the whole place was a basket case and nothing we were doing was of any use.

But the truth is, you could see it in millions of Afghan lives. If you were a young woman going off to school or university or work that is basically now in danger of coming to an end. If you were from the Hazaras community in Central Afghanistan, you are now facing a commander sitting on the edge of that valley talking about taking genocidal revenge. And you can see it simply in the desperation of people to get out of the country. So this was not a perfect country, it was a poor, fragile state like many other poor, fragile states around the world, but it was much, much better than it was 20 years ago.

Ian Bremmer:

So Rory, you're suggesting, and virtually no one in the United States is saying this, that the actual nation building effort by the Americans and the NATO coalition on the ground in Afghanistan was actually to a degree successful.

Rory Stewart:

I'm saying that the improvement in millions of lives was incredibly successful. I don't want to get caught up in this idea of nation building. Building nations is a very difficult long-term thing. After the US had been with troops in Korea for 20 years, South Korea was still a military dictatorship with the GDP per capita lower than the Congo, right? Takes a very, very long time for nations to be built. But what you could see through the work of my own nonprofit on the ground, through the work of many other people, is transformations in millions of individual lives. You can see it. Life expectancy went up, healthcare was massively improved, literacy went up, the economy grew dramatically. Afghan businesses were flourishing, and many middle class Afghans were living lives comparable to their opposite numbers in India. And that was something that simply didn't exist before the US-led intervention.

Ian Bremmer:

I mean, a America's Afghan war did engage in a fair amount of mission creep. I mean, at the beginning, the existential threat was a United States that, and it's almost the 20th anniversary of the 911 attacks, had just faced this unprecedented attack on New York City, on Washington DC. Americans were scared, Americans were angry, Americans wanted to do something, and Al-Qaeda was that fight. Now one, I mean certainly after Al-Qaeda is massively degraded, the leadership is decapitated in the case of Bin Laden quite directly.

I mean, hard to argue for an American domestic audience that Afghanistan is an existential threat or close to it. Now that the Americans have left, and we'll get to the allies in a second, I do want to ask about the UK response to all of this and the UK relationship with the US, but do you think that the Americans face knock on impact from Afghanistan itself? I mean, is there likelihood of a terrorist base showing up that is significant in the near term as a consequence of this withdrawal? What are the interests at play leaving aside damage to the alliance for the way this has gone about?

Rory Stewart:

Well, look, the problem in the US debate is that it's just all black and white. Either this is the most important threat in the world or it's not a threat at all. The answer of course is it's somewhere in between, and it's always been, right? It was never as important as American politicians pretended between 2001 and 2010. But it's certainly much more important than American foreign policy people are acknowledging today. And what do we mean by that? Well, is it a terrorist threat? Does it provide safe haven for nasty terrorist scripts? The answer in very blunt terms is of course it does. We've just seen 13 American servicemen killed in Kabul by the Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan. That is an extremely brutal international terrorist group operating freely within Afghan territory and killing American servicemen. So whatever we think about Afghanistan, nobody should be concluding that there are no terrorist threats coming from that particularly this week.

Secondly, what happens when the United States withdraws? Is the United States going to have more capacity to control and monitor the emergence of terrorists in Afghanistan after they've left than when they were there? Certainly not. And who's going to fill that vacuum? But the United States is basically at the moment holding off all support from the Taliban. China, Russia, Pakistan are going to turn up and say, "Okay, we'll step into that void and we'll begin to provide the support." And one of the naiveties of this whole thing is the idea that somehow if America leaves, this is all going to be so just an internal issue inside Afghanistan? Of course it isn't. You've created a vacuum into which Iran, Pakistan, and others will flow. So in terms of any of the things that we've cared about for the last 50 years, regional stability, terrorism, our humanitarian obligation towards the Afghan people, the credibility of the United States and its allies, this is a very, very damaging moment.

Ian Bremmer:

I understand that there's no reason to trust the Taliban, but I also understand that there is at least a possibility that the Taliban can't govern this country by themselves, and are going to have to recognize that they'll need to govern it with other groups in the country. Does that mean that all of these efforts of humanitarian rights organizations and others are necessarily just done and failed? Is this a cataclysm by definition? Can we already make that decision?

Rory Stewart:

There is a very small chance that some of these things might survive in some form, but it's a very small chance. And if President Biden was betting that somehow handing the country over to the Taliban would be fine and nothing would go backwards, he was taking the most incredible irresponsible risk. The chances are overwhelmingly that the kind of Taliban we see now will not be enormously different to what existed 20 years ago. And we can be absolutely confident that the Afghan economy is going to shrink very dramatically, that health and education services are going to struggle to survive. The development in humanitarian aid is going to be blocked, and that most Afghans, particularly Afghans living in places like Kabul will find their lives considerably worse than they were three months ago.

Ian Bremmer:

How much damage do you think has been done to the US/UK special relationship, as we call it, as a consequence of this?

Rory Stewart:

Well, you need to sort of put it back and see it from the British point of view. So since the 1950s, Britain has designed its entire foreign policy and defense policy around the United States. Essentially Britain around the world has tried to find out what the US is doing and do it at a slightly smaller scale alongside the United States. Everything's designed around the United States. So we went into Iraq with the United States, we went into Afghanistan with the United States, and of course we lost 100s of lives in Afghanistan fighting an American counterinsurgency warfare strategy. And every one of our generals and every one of our politicians and diplomats was out there repeating the lines from the George Bush Administration and the Obama Administration about why Afghanistan was so incredibly important, repeating to our own grieving parents of dead soldiers, the US analysis, which was that this was a threat to global security, that we needed to do this, that it was important to defeat the Taliban, that we had a moral obligation to Afghan women and we were going to stick the course.

And throughout that whole period, the United States was very flattering to Britain, right? When it suits United States, they're very good at saying, "Oh, you're absolutely critical to us. We're so grateful for you coming along with us. All these lives you're losing in Helmand make a huge difference to the effort. We really care about you." But at the moment of departure, the US wants to get out and it appears to forget that it had any partners on the ground at all. There was no real attempt to include Britain in any of these conversations. And through the manner of the departure, the US seems to indicate that this entire story of a partnership or relationship was nonsense. When it suited the US to get a coalition behind it, it could be as charming as it wanted.

But when it wanted to leave, any attempt to reach out to other countries and say, "Do you already think this is sensible? If we are leaving, is there any way that you could fill the gap that we're leaving behind? Can we provide some enablers behind you? 2,500 soldiers is not very many to us, NATO, to keep behind when the US leaves. Can we facilitate that in some way?" Those conversations were entirely lacking. And as I say, Biden didn't even bother to pick up the telephone to the Prime Minister Johnson for 48 hours after Kabul fell. And so that means that if you are Britain, the next time the US is saying, "We really want you with us, and we want you taking all these lives and risks and political costs because we want you to believe in the American confidence, the consistency of an American vision, America's commitment to its alliances, its moral obligation to people around the world." People are going to be a little bit skeptical.

Ian Bremmer:

Rory Stewart, thank you so much for joining us on GZERO World.

Rory Stewart:

Thank you.

Ian Bremmer:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety, and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more. This podcast is also brought to you by Walmart. At Walmart, we are committed to creating opportunities for veterans. That's why we've hired more than 250,000 since 2013 and more than 27,000 military spouses in 2020 alone. Now we're launching a program to help veterans and military spouses find employment, gain an education, and grow veteran businesses. Learn more at WalmartFindafuture.com.

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