Jamie Gorelick ’75: ‘The need for both vigilance and imagination remains high’

9/11 Commissioner says engaged citizenry united in its efforts will make this country safer

Jamie Gorelick ’75 — who, in the Clinton administration, served as general counsel to the Defense Department and then deputy attorney general to Attorney General Janet Reno ’63 — was tapped in 2002 to serve on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission. In July 2004, the commission released its public report, which topped bestseller lists and prodded both Congress and the president to overhaul the way the nation fights terror. A partner at WilmerHale, Gorelick is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission.


Harvard Law Today: On this anniversary, what are thoughts about your service on the 9/11 Commission?

Jamie Gorelick: I viewed my service on the commission as a critically important part of my public service, which spanned four agencies and many advisory panels over four decades. The commission took the deepest, broadest look at our national security apparatus and tried to recommend specific actions to make us safer. If the measure of our safety is that we have had no additional attacks like the one on 9/11, we are surely safer. But many threats remain. The need for both vigilance and imagination—two key elements that are woven throughout our report — remains high. The government needs to be agile, imaginative, and constant in its commitments — three things that are very hard for government.  And the rest of us need to stay engaged to make this happen.

The commission would not have existed and its report would not have been unblinking had it not been for the engagement and commitment of the 9/11 Families who held our and the country’s feet to the fire to make sure that we found the truth and then acted on what we found. If I had to identify one thing that can make us safer, it would be an engaged citizenry united in its efforts.  Twenty years out, we are certainly not united and the divisions among us make engagement awfully difficult.  Look at how many times the word “unity” — as in ‘unity of purpose’ and ‘unity of effort’ — appears in our report.  I hope that those words and those concepts do not become antique.

HLT: Why did you agree to serve on the commission?

One of the things that motivated me to want to serve on the 9/11 Commission, because collectively, I think, we could have done better.

Jamie Gorelick ‘75

Gorelick: Everyone with whom you’ve spoken to [for this series of articles]—the one exception is Ken Feinberg—was in the government in a national security position at some point in their lives.  And everyone who ever shared any responsibility for the national security of the country would naturally think, ‘What could we have done better?’ That was one of the things that motivated me to want to serve on the 9/11 Commission, because collectively, I think, we could have done better. In fact, I was in the middle of a review chartered by President Bush of the organization of the intelligence community at the time that the 9/11 attacks occurred. And I was on the losing end of an argument for a director of national intelligence. And my reaction in the week following the attack was, if this doesn’t provoke change I don’t know what will. But I saw up close the bureaucratic and cultural divisions that kept us from being as safe as we possibly could.

HLT: What are your personal memories of the day of the attacks?

Gorelick: On the morning of 9/11, I was visiting the one of the offices of the company that I was working for at the time and it happened to be out in Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. Many of the people who work there had family members at the Pentagon and our phones just lit up, and as reports were coming in, people were increasingly terrified. So my first job was to help people come together and sort of process what we were seeing on the television and to calm people because no one was allowed to go anywhere. Of course, I had my own family to think about; my husband was chief of medicine at Georgetown at the time, and everyone was all hands on deck [there] thinking there would be many, many injured and wounded coming into the hospital and of course, there were almost none. Everyone in the part of the Pentagon that was attacked, most died right away.

We had children at Georgetown Day School a stone’s throw from the Pentagon and we couldn’t go get them. The school was in lockdown. You couldn’t get a call through to anyone. My husband who worked very near where the children were in school would have been the obvious person to go get them but [he] was on duty. And so I, like everyone else, was focused on friends, family, coworkers, with this overlay of how could … an attack this spectacular and destructive have happened? I was upset and I was angry, angry at the people who did this. It was a real wound to the country, and it felt like a personal one.

HLT: Do you feel that the commission’s report was as thorough as you would want? Did it do its job?

Gorelick: We did our job. We had the deepest, broadest look at our nation’s national security apparatus. We reviewed over a million documents, we interviewed over 1200 people. And nearly everyone was fully cooperative. We got, for the most part, what we needed. There were some places where the trail ran dry and where we will not know the full truth. But for the most part, I think we understood what happened in the planning of that event and then the carrying out of that event. And we understood how the agencies worked together or not, where there needs to be strengthening skills. And we made very specific recommendations, all of which but one were enacted after a campaign by us [and] by the 9/11 families to adopt and enact those recommendations.

One of the big problems and the one I was trying to deal with when the attack happened  … was that the intelligence community had no effective means of coordination. The head of the CIA had two jobs — one was to run the CIA and the other was to run the intelligence community, and for the most part, CIA directors had not done that second job. It was an afterthought. And so we [recommended] to take it away and that there will be a Director of National Intelligence, which I think is generally credited with having done a good job. Each of the directors since 9/11 has been different and done the job differently, but the interagency coordination is much better. The budgets are much more rational, the operational integration is better, and the other recommendations that we made — cargo screening and identification of people coming in and out of the country — were all adopted. And I think the proof of the effectiveness of our recommendations, when combined with the soul searching that each agency and each person did after 9/11, is that we have not had the kind of spectacular attack that we had on that day. Indeed, when you think back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the national security community was enormously fearful of a second attack and it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen then and it hasn’t happened since. So when people asked, ‘Are we safer?’ I say ‘Yes.’ ‘Are we completely safe?’ No, there’s always more that we can do. And our enemies are very agile and determined.

HLT: What was the recommendation that was not adopted?

Gorelick: Congress was very good at adopting recommendations for changes in the executive branch. But the one recommendation that we made with respect to Congress, which is that it streamlines its own oversight so that we could have cohesive counterterrorism strategies, was not adopted.

HLT: What are your thoughts on what’s happening in Afghanistan?

Gorelick: We were right to go into Afghanistan. We cannot allow there to be a sanctuary for people who are actively engaged in planning our destruction. So we were right to go in. I am not an expert on Afghanistan so I don’t know when it would have been right to get out. But I am fearful now that we are out that we could return to it being sanctuary, and I think we need to be very much on guard against that.

If we don’t have unity, we are going to defeat ourselves.

HLT: You raised the issue of political polarization. How does that affect national security?

Gorelick: If you look at the 9/11 Commission Report, we talk about unity of purpose, unity of effort. Unity is absolutely key. Whether you’re talking about individuals within an agency, whether you’re talking about the relationship between state and local law enforcement and federal law enforcement, or whether you’re talking about how we treat Muslim Americans, unity is critical. I will just give you one example. Our initial treatment as a government of Muslim Americans, to round people up, was not only wrong morally and legally but it was wrongheaded from a national security point of view—because the greatest guarantor for our safety is that we are all in this together, it is that the Muslim American community has, for the most part, been wholeheartedly part of the effort to get rid of any of any terrorist or malfeasor instincts within its own community. If we don’t have unity, we are going to defeat ourselves. So if you look at the current disunity, the current inability to even rely on the same set of facts, the enormous mistrust, this is inevitably destructive. You saw it in the 2016 election where our foreign enemies took advantage of the internal fissures in our society to make people hate each other and suspicious of one another. That’s no way for us to be safe.

HLT: What else concerns you about the future of the country and the world?

Gorelick: I’m obviously concerned about both foreign and domestic terrorism. But the thing that concerns me most on a macro level is our short memories. The memory of 9/11 is not even possible for someone under 20 years old or even under 30 years old. And we have shown repeatedly that once a danger recedes our attention focuses on something else. So if you look at the response to the pandemic, we had prior viruses, prior threats of the same sort [and] we decided to have a strategic national reserve of vaccines, protective clothing, ventilators. And then, after a few years, we stopped funding those things because the urgency wasn’t right in front of us. That’s the worry I have, and that’s what we called, at the very beginning of our report, the failure of imagination. If we can’t imagine what harms could come our way, we can’t prepare for them. If we can imagine, we can prepare.