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How Congress worked to protect America after 9/11: Reflections from Mike Alexander, former staff director of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

Throughout our nation’s history, Congress has risen to meet the challenge of national tragedy. On the evening of September 11, 2001 – as first responders continued search and rescue operations across the river at the Pentagon – members of Congress stood on the Capitol steps in “a public demonstration of unity.”  More difficult work would follow – helping stranded constituents, providing accurate information, and on September 14, 2001, authorizing military strikes against Afghanistan.

In the weeks, months and years that followed the attacks, the responsibility for ensuring the defense of the nation against future attacks became the most important task for Members of Congress and their staff. At the forefront of this work were Mike Alexander and Michael Bopp – diligent and conscientious staffers who instinctively talk about their bosses’ achievements rather than their own. Yet both played a pivotal role in crafting and securing passage of landmark legislation that continues to protect the nation.

New to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Mike Alexander suddenly found himself confronting the urgent and critical task of consolidating the myriad of homeland security responsibilities spread over 100 government agencies and offices into a single federal department. Guided by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and supported by ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the committee would produce the transformational Homeland Security Act of 2002 that created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

By 2004, committee roles had reversed, and Sen. Collins was entrusted as the new chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee with the most significant reform of the U.S. intelligence community since its creation. As committee staff director and chief counsel, Michael Bopp not only drafted key sections of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, creating the position of Director of National Intelligence, but helped guide the bill through fierce negotiations with other committees and initial opposition from the Department of Defense.

Both Mike and Michael have since left Capitol Hill, but we asked them to reflect on how Congress responded to a national tragedy and the institution’s ability to respond to future crises.

Part 1: An interview with Former Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Mike Alexander. Click here to read an interview with Michael Bopp, his predecessor on the committee.

Alliance: What was the mood of Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  How did this atmosphere affect the work on homeland security?

MA: As I recall, the mood in Congress was of course shock and, in some cases, just totally surprised that our nation was unable to prevent such a devastating, clearly very coordinated, attack.

Before 9/11 national security was pretty much exclusively focused on defending the country by projecting strength abroad.  We have the strongest military in the world with the ability to project power anywhere. Yet, we were humbled by 19 terrorists who deftly penetrated our own country, meticulously planned and carried out such a massive attack, killing almost 3,000 of our own citizens, injuring some 25,000 others, destroying the Twin Towers, maiming the Pentagon, and but for the heroisms of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, perhaps would have succeeded in devastating the Capitol or White House as well. Not to mention the trillions of dollars in damage done to our economy.

In the immediate aftermath, of course people wanted to get after Al Qaeda. But there was also a sense that we needed to take seriously, really for the first time, actually defending the homeland. And there was a realization that there was really no agency focused exclusively on the task – a very disturbing realization to say the least.

Alliance: The Bush Administration and Congress moved quickly to reshape and reorganize homeland security functions after the 9/11 attacks.  Could you describe how all sides came together so quickly to enact a sweeping reorganization of government agencies?

MA: When President Bush quickly established the Office of Homeland Security in October barely a month after the attack, and named former Governor Tom Ridge to develop and coordinate a national strategy to counter terrorism, there was a feeling among some members, like my boss Senator Lieberman, that a coordinating Office without real executive power would not have sufficient authority to implement needed changes, given some of the weaknesses that the attack had exposed.

The guide for us really was the Hart/Rudman Commission, which had issued a report in January 2001 warning that the country would increasingly be vulnerable to attack on our own homeland and our military superiority would not help us. One of their key recommendations was to establish a new Homeland Security Agency to create accountability and more synergy between the various functions spread across government that were key to securing the homeland. That comprehensive report released nine months before Sept 11, I believe is what created the opportunity for Congress to act as quickly was it did.

We basically already had a blueprint for some of what needed to be done.  It prompted Congressional leaders, especially Sens. Lieberman and Collins in the Senate and Mac Thornberry in the House, among others, to take that report off the shelf, study its analysis, and work diligently to implement it. And despite serious opposition from some who were concerned about losing Committee jurisdiction, the need for reform was simply too great to sustain the status quo.

Alliance: At the time, the White House described the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as “the most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over a half-century.”  Could you describe what it was like to undertake such a massive transformation in the wake of a national tragedy?

MA: For me it was the feeling that we really were fighting for our country’s security, for those we loved right here at home, and thus while challenging, and accompanied by long days and nights, it was very tremendously rewarding.  This was my very first year in the Senate.  I was a relatively junior staff member, and it was a serious baptism by fire.

Most importantly for us, at the time since we were the Governmental Affairs Committee, basically with jurisdiction over broad government reorganizations, so we could look at the issues objectively and not have any preconceived biases towards which agency should be included and which should not., etc.  We really felt like we were free to look at the big picture, undeterred by the need to protect this or that special interest and propose and fight for what we thought was best for the country. 

A similar dynamic prevailed when we also worked to implement the key 9/11 Commission recommendation to reform the intelligence community in 2004 and create a Director of National Intelligence. Both the Commission itself and the recommendations would not have happened were it not for the 9/11 families who turned their grief into action. Their activism after 9/11 was a tremendous impetus for all of the change that occurred.

There is probably nothing in Washington harder than institutional or organizational change, and when the proposed change involves almost two dozen agencies, spread across several departments, there are a lot of objections you have to contend with, from within the bureaucracy but also of course their patrons on Committees in Congress in the House and the Senate.  9/11 did not change that.  But it did create the momentum for many of the obstacles to be overcome.

Alliance: How has Congress’s ability to respond to crises changed since 9/11 and passage of landmark legislation like the Homeland Security Act?  What opportunities does Congress have to better respond to future crises?

MA: I left HSGAC, and retired in 2013.  The Congress of today is far different from when I had the honor of working at HSGAC. From a distance, it just seems like Congress’ ability to respond to any crisis has been greatly diminished because everything is viewed through partisan political lenses. Look at the response to the pandemic.  Or the inability to agree on an approach to investigate the assault on the Capitol on January 6. The recent attack killing 13 brave soldiers in Afghanistan is yet another example.  Rather than work though differences and come together to address these crises, like we did after 9/11, too many now seem to think first and foremost only about how to use them to gain a political advantage.

Unfortunately, there will be plenty of opportunities to respond to crises. That’s the nature of the times. I wish I were more optimistic that the spirit that prevailed after 9/11 will somehow prevail again. But if a deadly pandemic that’s killed 640,000 Americans and growing, a violent assault on Congress, or terrorist attack on our troops abroad didn’t do it, I really don’t know what will. At least not until enough of the American people demand, vote for, and insist on change.

Part two to follow.