During a casual breakfast 10 years ago, University of Oklahoma President David Boren's meeting with Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet was interrupted by five surreptitious men converging on their table.
“It was when the first plane went into the tower ... the words were, ‘The World Trade Center has been attacked,' and they used the word ‘attacked,' ” Boren said.
Blocks away from Boren's table near the White House, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe was addressing the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce on the 9th floor of the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill when a plane struck the Pentagon.
“I could see out the windows a plume of smoke and had no idea what we were watching,” Inhofe said.
Now, a decade since that fateful day, Inhofe sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Boren, who formerly chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, now advises President Barack Obama on the President's Intelligence Advisory Board.
“We have done a good job in recognizing the threat is out there,” Inhofe said. “We need to not sit around and be afraid, but we need to be aware. We need to rebuild our military and intelligence system.”
Inhofe said that with Osama bin Laden and many of his top supporters dead, threats from al-Qaida have been weakened, but not eliminated.
He said threats also come from countries like Iran with advanced weapons and technology. For this reason, we need to maintain a close alliance with Israel and do nothing to undermine that.
Guantanamo Bay should remain open, he said: “Politics should remain off the battlefield.”
Are we safer?
The biggest mistake the country has made in fighting terrorism is treating it like a war, said Boren.
“We've mobilized 100,000 troops, fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to go after a relatively small organization of perhaps 2,000 people. al-Qaida is more the size of the mafia than the German war machine,” Boren said. “We've overstretched ourselves and are now in the middle of civil wars and nation-building.”
The toll, Boren said, has been in human life and the trillions of dollars to wage the wars that have now weakened the nation's economy.
“When history is written, we'll see our reaction to 9/11 and we'll get an A+ on reorganizing intelligence, coordination and sharing information. I think we'll get a failing grade on overextending ourselves and our military.”
In hindsight, history will show we should have kept our focus on al-Qaida and on building the internal strength of the country, Boren said.
“There are very important lessons to learn over the past 10 years,” Boren said. We've done things well but there are things that concern me greatly and have weakened the country.”
Boren said at times we've been tempted into compromising basic human rights, particularly when it comes to rules of war and the Geneva Convention.
And will the threat always be a group like al-Qaida, a country, or something tangible and easily defined?
The answer is “no,” Boren said. Likewise, there will never be total protection from a person or persons who want to harm the country.
David Cid, executive director of the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, said law enforcement is becoming more focused on individuals with an ax to grind.
The so called “Lone Wolf” or “Lone Actor” is harder to track because they aren't necessarily leaving behind any evidence of their plot by talking or planning with others.
“A person who decides in a moment to kill people is very hard to find,” Cid said. “It's the ultimate act of narcissism.”