Jane Harman ’69: ‘We haven’t learned that when we work together we overcome’

Former California congresswoman and a ranking member of House Intelligence Committee on the country's shift from comity to fingerpointing

Jane Harman ’69 served nine terms as the U.S. representative for California’s 36th congressional district and she was the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence Subcommittee. She resigned from Congress in 2011 to join the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars as its first female president and CEO. In May 2021, she released a policy memoir, “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe.”


Harman wrote the following reflection for Harvard Law Today: 

On September 10, 2001, I ate lunch at the Red River Grill, a popular lobbyist hang-out near the Senate office buildings. My lunch partner was L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, a former ambassador who had recently chaired the National Commission on Terrorism on which I served. After traveling to the U.K. and Middle East and interviewing key officials about the nascent terrorism problem, we predicted that the U.S. was ripe for a major terrorist attack. At lunch, we commiserated that no one was paying attention to our bombshell prediction.

The next day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So I decided to walk from my breakfast at the Democratic National Committee over to an Intelligence Committee meeting in the Capitol when my phone rang. “Come back to the office, immediately.”

Before I could get there I received a second call about the second plane and the news that the Capitol and office buildings were being evacuated. The speculation was that there might be more terrorist attacks, so Congress was closing. I was horrified. As members we take an oath to provide for the common defense, and we were closing? I rushed to find other members who by then were milling around on the east side of the Capitol. There was no evacuation plan.

Somehow I reached my husband by phone, but reaching our daughter in her senior year in high school was impossible. The cell towers crashed. In the midst of the horror we learned that both Trade Towers had collapsed. I suggested to then-Congressman Saxby Chambliss, co-chair with me of the special Terrorism Subcommittee which House Speaker Dennis Hastert had recently formed, that we go to his apartment nearby. As soon as we got there (a tiny basement pied-a-terre dominated by Saxby’s golf clubs), we used his land line to locate a place where our committee could meet, and try to be helpful in the chaos of that morning. By then we had seen horrifying TV footage of the towers’ collapse, the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of the fourth airplane which commentators speculated was headed for the Capitol dome (where I had been headed earlier).

The enormity of the moment began to sink in: WE HAD WARNED ABOUT THIS and yet our government was surprised and shockingly unprepared.

Saxby and I secured a room in the Capitol police headquarters next to a popular watering hole called the Monocle. Finally, with secure communications, we addressed next steps — and my focus was to get the Capitol and office buildings reopened ASAP. We didn’t know if more attacks were coming, but military jets had scrambled and were protecting our airspace. The president and key staff were in a secure location, and now it was past time for Congress to get back to work. By around 5 pm — eight hours late, in my view — the buildings were reopened and a large bipartisan group assembled on the Capitol steps, held hands and sang “God Bless America.”   

We showed resilience and the country survived. And now we confront what many believe are worse calamities than 9/11.

Jane Harman ’69

A few weeks later, our subcommittee visited Ground Zero and held a previously planned hearing at City Hall nearby. The topic: Terrorism. Are We Prepared? I vividly recall touring the site — suffocating smell and debris everywhere, police tape, rescue vehicles, a trailer which was a make-shift morgue. The refrain during those awful weeks was “America is under attack.” Not once did I hear attacks by one party against the other. Segue to now. What haven’t we learned?  We haven’t learned that when we work together we overcome the worst trauma. We showed resilience and the country survived. And now we confront what many believe are worse calamities than 9/11.

On January 6, 2021, radicalized Americans attacked our Capitol and, had they succeeded, could have brought our government down. Just this week, ISIS-K suicide bombers killed scores of Marines and Afghans at Kabul airport. The comity after 9/11 is forgotten: finger-pointing has begun.