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Sept. 11: Remembering A Tragedy

AUDIE CORNISH, host: You're listening to live, special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Surprise - when it happens to a government - is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost. Now, those words were written 50 years ago by a Nobel Prize-winning economist and historian, Thomas Schelling, in a book about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But our next guest quotes them in the context of the September 11th attacks, and the effect on our national security system. Philip Zelikow - he served as executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. And he helped compile the original 9/11 report. Now, he's written an update on the commission's recommendations.

We spoke with Mr. Zelikow this past week from New York, and he told us how the government has followed through on some of the commission's key recommendations.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Our most important institutional recommendation was to create a national counter-terrorism center, or an NCTC, that would bridge the domestic-foreign divide; that would pool a lot of the information available and make sure that somebody was working on the key problems. That actually is a substantial success, so that's very much on the plus side.

Probably the biggest minus is the failure of Congress to change the way in which it oversees the intelligence community.

CORNISH: There are well over 100 different sort of departments in the area of security that are overseen by dozens of committees on Capitol Hill.

ZELIKOW: Right. So you have a dysfunctional congressional management of homeland security in the committee system you just described. Then, the intelligence community used to have its budget hidden in the defense budget, so all of its appropriations were approved by the subcommittee that does defense appropriations. But now, its budget is broken out. The top line of the intelligence budget is public. So the reason for hiding it in the defense appropriations subcommittee is gone. But the defense appropriations subcommittee won't give it up.

CORNISH: Another issue, specifically on that day, was the emergency radio system for first responders. It was a huge problem, especially for the New York Fire Department.

And I want to play a clip of a moment of testimony before the 9/11 Commission in May of 2004. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was about to give his testimony when the audience interrupted him.


RUDY GIULIANI: These people...


CORNISH: This was a very emotional meeting and later on, your commission recommended dealing with the shortage of broadcast spectrum. Can you talk about the status of this recommendation today?

ZELIKOW: We still have a problem in that there's not enough broadcast spectrum available for emergency service agencies in a lot of cities. So the commission recommended that a chunk of unallocated broadcast spectrum - it's known as the D block - be set aside for the emergency service agencies to use. But to actually use that part of the broadcast spectrum, you'd need to build a lot of very expensive infrastructure and equipment to use it. And the cities and the local governments just don't have the kind of money that would be needed to build that kind of equipment. Congress hasn't been able to come up with a solution yet.

CORNISH: Philip Zelikow, knowing what you know, do you feel any safer today?

ZELIKOW: I do feel safer today. I think, you know, we're not safe and we shouldn't be complacent. One of the hard problems is how do you talk about this? How do you tell people that we've made things better without inviting a sense of complacency and dulling the alertness that we need to maintain?

But we need to adjust to a situation where we become more resilient as a society. We have reduced the scale of this problem through actions overseas and things we've done at home. We've made things safer, so now we need to adjust to a world in which our systems are going to be attacked from a lot of different places and sources.

And the measure of a society, in many ways, is not whether or not you can prevent every single attack. It's how do you respond when you are attacked? I think that's one of the lessons that we're absorbing as a society as we look back on the last 10 years and think about - what's the best and the worst that these crises brought out in us? Is - the gain in our maturity and our resilience as a community, and how we cope with these problems and move on and go on with our lives.

CORNISH: Philip Zelikow is executive director of the 9/11 Commission. He spoke with us from New York. Philip Zelikow, thank you so much.

ZELIKOW: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.