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Two decades after the terrorist attacks, the country is dealing with the aftermath of two wars and a squandered opportunity for unity, says former Director of National Intelligence and professor of the practice Admiral Dennis Blair.

Former Director of National Intelligence retired Admiral Dennis Blair is the University’s first Knott Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Practice in the peace, war and defense curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences. (Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill).
Former Director of National Intelligence retired Admiral Dennis Blair is the University’s first Knott Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Practice in the peace, war and defense curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences. (Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill).

On Sept. 11, 2001, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Dennis Blair gave fighter pilots orders to shoot down commercial airplanes if they deviated from their flight plans and were threatening to crash into locations where they would take more lives than those on board.

The pilots of 16 commercial planes on their way to Honolulu International Airport that morning followed U.S. Navy Admiral Blair’s directions to land at a smaller airport. But eight stubborn pilots — unaware that wide-body airliners like theirs had been used in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon earlier that day — insisted on landing in Honolulu. Blair sent Air Force interceptor jets to escort them, ensure that they had not been taken over by hijackers and, if necessary, take extreme measures. Fortunately, extreme measures weren’t necessary.

Twenty years later, Blair shares his unique perspective on that tragic day and its aftermath with Carolina students, many of them born after 9/11. Blair, the 34-year Navy veteran who was President Barack Obama’s first director of national intelligence, is the University’s first Knott Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Practice in the peace, war and defense curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Reflecting on 9/11’s legacy days before the event’s 20th anniversary on Saturday, Blair pointed to the “disastrous results” of the wars on terror that the United States waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he said he is “haunted” by the missed opportunities to unify the U.S. following the terrorist attacks.

“The country was incredibly united and patriotic, and the leadership at the time never really turned that sentiment into solving long-lasting problems,” he said. Sentiment at the time could have been transformed into support for a new tax to fund the war on terror and for a program of national service that could have united Americans in a common effort.

“We didn’t tap that sense of national unity and purpose in a way that could have brought the country together,” Blair said. “And since then, we’ve just seen the country grow further and further apart, with greater income, racial, ethnic and regional disparities.”

The Well asked Blair to address the following questions about 9/11’s legacy:

What’s different about the national security landscape as a result of 9/11?

The main thing that is different is that we have built a much greater defensive set of precautions. The United States is a much tougher place to get into than it was back then, when those hijackers came into the United States, took flying lessons in our own flying schools and traveled back and forth across international borders. We are keeping a much closer eye on the overseas groups. The FBI and local law enforcement are much more aware of the possibility of homegrown terrorism.

And, of course, all of the protective measures that have been taken around installations themselves are much greater than they were, as are the precautions on airplanes, where we have all of the things we all go through when we fly anywhere. The doors of the cockpits are armored. So we’re just a much more difficult target. And I’m confident that nothing as elaborate and coordinated as the 9/11 plot could happen to us again.

What have we learned about terrorism?

One lesson was that 9/11 was really the terrorists’ biggest, best shot. Al-Qaeda was a fairly unique organization in that it put attacks on the United States at the top of its list. Most other jihadist terrorist organizations have more local goals. They want to get rid of the government that they have in their country. They don’t have these vaunting ambitions that Osama bin Laden had for going after the Great Satan. We know more about jihadi terrorism. We have more tools. We’re a tougher target.

What is the biggest terrorism threat today?

The biggest threat that remains is that a terrorist organization gets hold of a weapon of mass destruction — nuclear, biological or chemical — and decides to use it. They’re not put off by America’s or any other country’s ability to retaliate against them because they’ve got nothing to protect, nothing that they own.

Fortunately, from a technical point of view, it’s much harder to get hold of and operate a weapon of mass destruction than you would think from the science fiction or the international thrillers that you read. But we still need to work really hard on making sure nuclear weapons around the world are safe, particularly in countries like Pakistan. We need to keep track as best we can of chemical and biological weapons, which are somewhat easier to assemble but are harder to use — especially harder to use without harming the people who are trying to use them.

How have U.S. civil liberties changed?

I think that that pendulum has swung back virtually to where it was before the Patriot Act was passed, soon after 9/11. It was amended many times since. That entire legislation lapsed in 2019 and doesn’t exist anymore. The prohibitions against U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring or gathering intelligence on Americans are still there, and they’re quite strong. And in my observation, they work pretty well. If the FBI wants to tap our phones or follow us, they have to go convince the judge that there’s a good reason to do so. Overall, I think as far as civil liberties and privacy, we’re pretty much back where we were, on the government side. What flabbergasts me is the amount of information we are perfectly happy to give private companies like Google and Apple, trusting them not to abuse it.

By Susan Hudson, The Well

Event: The War on Terror at 20: Assessing Lessons Learned From the American and British Experiences

How did the U.S. and U.K. governments respond in the days, weeks and years following the major terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005? What have both countries learned about dealing with the threat of terrorism? Led by former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and former Chief of the British Intelligence Service Sir John Scarlett, American and British intelligence experts will examine these questions in three online panel discussions, sponsored by the Institute for Arts and Humanities and the curriculum in peace, war and defense.

Sept. 17

  • 9-10 a.m.: U.S. Experience
  • 10 a.m.-noon: British Experience
  • Noon-1 p.m.: Way Forward for United States and United Kingdom
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