9/11 forever changed US national security, but intelligence flaws remain a threat

U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson and Kweisi Mfume, who sit on the nation's top congressional committees on national security, tell theGrio there is a great need to strengthen U.S. intelligence.

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As the country remembers the 9/11 terrorist attacks that forever changed the United States and its national security, members of Congress who lead on issues of homeland security and government oversight tell theGrio there remains a great need to strengthen U.S. intelligence to protect millions of Americans.

Smoke pours from the World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Fabina Sbina/ Hugh Zareasky/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack, says the events of 9/11 exposed a “colossal intelligence failure” in the United States.

The congressman said America’s vulnerable intelligence system at the time was as if “the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”

Twenty-one years ago today, three commercial U.S. planes were used as missiles to pierce and demolish American buildings, striking at the heart of the nation – the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the famous twin towers in New York City. A fourth plane that was thought to be on its way to D.C. was also downed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Thompson told theGrio that there was a clear lack of communication and intelligence gathered by government agencies that could’ve prevented the 9/11 attack. The senior Democratic lawmaker noted that the CIA had information that individuals were perhaps coming into the U.S. to learn how to fly an aircraft and trained enough to know how to “weaponize” planes. Yet somehow “the FBI never got the communication,” said Thompson.

More than two decades later, Thompson says there is still a need for more intelligence integration efforts between federal law enforcement agencies.  

The 9/11 attacks launched the creation of The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under Republican President George W. Bush as a cabinet department. Thompson remembered the U.S. government acting in “record time” in response to 9/11. 

9/11 intelligence
US President George W. Bush poses before signing the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, 03 August 2007 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. The bill would implement the recommendations of the commission and call for full inspections of air and sea cargo entering the US. Standing behind Bush from left: Fran Townsend, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Representatives Peter King, Bennie Thompson; Senators Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, Ted Stevens. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“Democrats and Republicans came together overnight … to create a defense mechanism that would protect the homeland,” he said.

DHS incorporated a historic 22 agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), which Thompson noted is now in 450 airports across the country. 

“No plane can fly in the United States without adopting the United States regulation for planes,” he said.

Before the creation of the nearly two dozen agencies under the DHS umbrella, Thompson points out that intelligence was not integrated among many agencies before 9/11 – and continues to be a challenge today.

Thompson, who has become the face of accountability for the 2021 Capitol attack on Jan. 6 as his committee continues to investigate former President Donald Trump, as well as Trump’s former staff and supporters, pointed out that an FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia, had intelligence information leading up to the attack that was not disseminated to other law enforcement agencies.

Thompson believes if that information had been shared about Jan. 6, it could have changed the violent and deadly events of that day. Some Capitol Hill lawmakers believe there is a direct connection between the 9/11 and Jan. 6 attacks, which are undoubtedly two of the worst terror attacks in U.S. history. That thread revolves around national intelligence.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

As lessons learned are at the forefront when thinking about protecting the nation from future attacks like the ones seen on 9/11, Thompson says as far as Jan. 6, the Capitol must be fortified even as the public building remains open as “the people’s house.”

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., who was president of the NAACP at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attack, told theGrio he’d “never forget” learning about the tragedy during a staff meeting.

“I got interrupted in the middle of that staff meeting by someone who said, ‘Can you step outside for a minute? And I did. And they immediately pointed to the television screen,” recalled Mfume. “I went back in, alerted my staff, dismissed them, asked them to all be prepared to come outside of the building, because I didn’t know if the attacks were going to be broad-based, not just on government buildings, but on other buildings – in this case, the civil rights headquarters of the NAACP.”

At that time, the NAACP was headquartered in a multi-story, historic building in Baltimore, Maryland. When asked what he believes is the greatest threat facing the country, Mfume cited ”the loss of intelligence and having our intelligence community compromised.”

The congressman, who sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, pointed to the most recent FBI seizure of top secret documents found at Trump’s private Mar~a-Lago home in Florida.

Pages from a FBI property list of items seized from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate and made public by the Department of Justice, are photographed Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. FBI agents who searched the home found empty folders marked with classified banners. The inventory reveals in general terms the contents of the 33 boxes taken during the Aug. 8 search. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Rep. Mfume noted that had the documents – which contained “highly sensitive information from our intelligence community” –  fallen in the wrong hands, it would have risked the lives of people who are “undercover doing their jobs because they would have been exposed.”

Mfume is sure that after the Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack finishes its work, the House Reform and Oversight Committee will then begin its work on where the Select Committee left off, with a focus on national security infractions revealed from recent findings by the committee led by Chairman Thompson. 

Mfume said concerns shared by him and many others regarding classified documents found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence are not about politics, but about the national security of the United States. 

“That’s just too much sensitive information regarding the security of this country. And without it, things like 9/11 and other kinds of incidences can and probably will be attempted,” he said.

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