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Director Brennan Speaks at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City

26 September 2016


Fifteen years ago today, at 2:40 pm local time, an unmarked, Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopter landed in the Panjshir Valley of northeastern Afghanistan. The rugged, lumbering aircraft had just carried a team of CIA officers and their gear over a nearly 15,000-foot pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains from Tajikistan.

Seven Americans stepped out into a bright, cloudless day and were warmly welcomed by their hosts, members of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. A little over two weeks earlier, on September 9th, the Alliance’s beloved commander, Ahmad Shah Masood, had been murdered by al-Qa‘ida in a grisly prelude to the 9/11 attacks. Masood's aggrieved lieutenants were eager to meet with the Americans and join forces with the United States against al-Qa’ida.

The CIA team, codenamed JAWBREAKER, had arrived to lay the groundwork for the coming war, and was well equipped to do so. Along with a heavy wooden crate of weapons and ammunition, the CIA officers had brought a large black suitcase filled with $3 million in cash.

Even more importantly, they arrived with a plan—and with the connections, know-how, and courage to carry it out.

And though the JAWBREAKER officers had arrived to unleash America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, which had occurred only two weeks earlier, their mission was the opening salvo in a global counterterrorism campaign that continues to this day—and that has helped keep our country safe from another major terrorist attack staged from beyond our shores.

* * * *

Tonight, it is my privilege to join you here at the 9/11 Memorial Museum to talk about that great national effort, one that has dominated the past 15 years of our country’s history. Having been born and raised right across the river in Hudson County, New Jersey, it is truly an honor for me to speak at this remarkable institution, here on this sacred ground.

I want to thank Joe Daniels for his kind introduction, and I am very grateful to the Museum for inviting me here tonight.

I look forward to chatting with Cliff Chanin and to taking your questions after my opening remarks, which begin with the events of September 11th, 2001. And since everyone who’s old enough has a 9/11 story, I would like to start off by telling you mine.

Back then, I was CIA’s Deputy Executive Director, a job that gave me a hands-on role in the Agency’s day-to-day operations. I was in our conference room at our daily morning meeting of senior Agency officials when an officer from our Operations Center came in and told us that a large passenger aircraft had just crashed into the World Trade Center. We immediately returned to our offices, only to see a second aircraft crash into the South Tower on live TV. For those of us who were following the increasing drumbeat of threat reporting in the preceding months that Bin Laden was planning a major attack, we knew instantly that al Qa’ida had struck a devastating blow against our homeland.

Director George Tenet was downtown having breakfast with Senator David Boren that morning. And just as Director Tenet was arriving back at Headquarters around 9:45, we heard that an airliner had crashed into the Pentagon.

At about 9:50, CIA’s entire senior leadership team packed into the DCI conference room on the seventh floor of our Headquarters building. And the first decision we had to make—and make fast—was whether the Agency compound should be evacuated.

As many of us recalled that Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had revealed plans to attack CIA Headquarters with an aircraft, and the danger now seemed all too real. So Director Tenet ordered an evacuation of all personnel, except for those in the 24-hour Watch Office and our Counterterrorism Center. I remember going floor by floor knocking on doors. Within an hour Agency seniors resumed their work at another building on the Langley compound.

It is very hard to express the depth of anger, of regret, and of sheer sadness we felt on that day. CIA had been chartered shortly after the Second World War in large part to prevent a surprise attack. And yet each of us had to confront the terrible, painful reality that our country was enduring another Pearl Harbor.

At a 3:30 secure video teleconference with President Bush and his key national security advisors, Director Tenet expressed certainty that Bin Ladin and al-Qa‘ida had orchestrated the attacks. A check of passenger manifests turned up three known al-Qa‘ida operatives on the flight that had struck the Pentagon.

Likewise, intelligence reports processed that day indicated al-Qa‘ida operatives were congratulating each other, and one collected before September 11th indicated al-Qa‘ida had anticipated that something dramatic would soon occur. But none of the information specified a time or place of the attacks in a way that would have allowed CIA or FBI to preempt them.

It was at that 3:30 teleconference that the President said he considered the Nation to be at war with al-Qa‘ida and wanted a plan of attack ready as soon as possible. The effect was immediate and powerful—we at CIA knew we had a major role to play in the coming campaign, and we were energized by the prospect of contributing so directly to such an enormous and vital national endeavor.

CIA had already been at war with al-Qa‘ida since December 1998, when Director Tenet sent a memo to Agency principals declaring as much, and ordering that no resources would be spared in the effort. We had officers who had devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort to the problem of how to combat bin Ladin and his operatives.

That’s why, as early as the morning of September 12th, George Tenet had prepared a proposal to send CIA paramilitary teams to Afghanistan. And two weeks later—by the time our JAWBREAKER team was on the ground in the Panjshir Valley—CIA had developed that proposal into a full-fledged strategic plan to sweep the Taliban from power and destroy al-Qa‘ida’s safehaven in Afghanistan.

More than anyone else in the US Government, CIA officers had years of experience in dealing not only with the Northern Alliance, but with other groups in Afghanistan that would help us bring the fight to al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban. Agency officers had a thorough grounding in the culture, knew the players, and understood the rivalries.

Their ready knowledge and can-do spirit would serve our Nation exceptionally well in the weeks following September 11th, when speed, agility, expertise, and ingenuity weighed more heavily in the balance than force and firepower.

Admittedly, those were days of considerable anxiety and uncertainty. None of us at the Agency knew if a second wave of attacks was on the way.

But like the rest of the country, we had a clear sense of purpose and mission. Adrenaline was running high. Many of our officers were working around the clock, sleeping on cots and sofas. Those with quieter accounts were volunteering for counterterrorism assignments. Turf battles were tossed aside, along with bureaucratic red tape.

It was a snapshot of the Agency at its best—a relatively small and agile organization that serves as the Nation’s overseas troubleshooters. In combatting al-Qa‘ida, just knowing the identity and location of the enemy was well over half the battle. And no other group was in a better position to lead the charge.

* * * *

Today, we can thank those early Agency paramilitary teams—and women and men who followed from across the Armed Forces and the Intelligence Community, the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State, Treasury, and others—for waging an exceptionally effective campaign against an adversary unlike any in our Nation’s history.

By bringing the fight to the terrorists—by constantly disrupting their operations and hounding their leadership—our government has made it much harder for them to carry out operations against America and our allies.

The core al-Qa‘ida organization that attacked this city is now a shadow of its former self. It was pushed out of Afghanistan, largely dismantled, and is now scattered around South Asia. Much of its cachet and influence among the extremist terrorist community died with bin Ladin. Nonetheless, it remains a lethal organization and a significant concern.

Regional al-Qa‘ida affiliates that have sprung up since 9/11 also pose serious challenges—groups like al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb. These groups are more preoccupied with local agendas than the original al-Qa‘ida was—for example, in Yemen and in Syria. But they remain capable of mounting external terrorist operations to this day.

And, of course, what used to be al-Qa‘ida in Iraq morphed into Daesh, or the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. ISIL has eclipsed al-Qa‘ida in shaping the direction of global terrorism and is unlike any extremist group we have ever seen, mostly in terms of its global reach and pretentions of being a state. It is also a younger group as well as more sophisticated and more dangerous in its use of the digital domain.

ISIL’s core position in Iraq and Syria is coming under heavy pressure from the military coalition arrayed against it. The group is attempting to compensate by increasing its overseas operational tempo, and ISIL remains the single greatest terrorist threat to the United States and our allies.

But looking back at the past 15 years, we Americans have made enormous progress in securing our homeland. And the hallmark of that effort has been teamwork and integration—tighter collaboration between all levels of government; between law enforcement, the military, the Intelligence Community, and other national security elements; closer ties to our overseas partners; and a sense of common cause among our citizens, who know that they are an integral part of our national defense. And I would be remiss if I didn’t extend special thanks and admiration to the NYPD and the other officials of this great city in keeping the people of New York safe.

Under both President Bush and President Obama, we have vastly improved security at our borders, airports, and other ports of entry. We have strengthened information-sharing and cooperation across all tiers of our national counterterrorism effort, and have developed whole-of-government approaches to potential threats and crises.

Today, we can clearly see the results of that teamwork. The United States is a strong, resilient nation that presents a far harder environment for terrorists to plan and perpetrate attacks, and we can be very proud of what we have achieved.

But our country is strong for reasons that transcend metal detectors and watch lists, as important as those are.

America is strong because we adhere, however imperfectly, to the rule of law and to the principle of government by the people. We are holding our 58th straight presidential election in the 227 years since George Washington was first elected. That is arguably a more difficult feat than putting a man on the moon—which, of course, we have also done.

America is strong because we protect and respect individual rights, including freedom of expression and worship. Sadly, such liberties are becoming increasingly precious commodities in the world—Freedom House reports that over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline in overall freedom, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.

And America is strong because we are a diverse and inclusive nation of nations—and there is no better expression of the power and vitality of diversity than here in New York. Citizenship is not contingent on a particular blood, religion or homeland, but on allegiance to the United States Constitution and belief in our country’s principles.

Ultimately, these are the strengths that define America. These are the strengths that truly make our country exceptional.

And I should add that our exceptionalism is grounded not in the simplistic notion that Americans are better than everyone else. Rather it is because America has unique advantages, from our Constitution to our bountiful natural resources, to our diversity as the world’s melting pot, to our economic power. Consequently, American exceptionalism also means that the United States has exceptional responsibilities and obligations to the rest of the world, especially in taking the lead when it comes to countering international threats, instability, violence, and disorder that threatens our global well-being.

I mention our country’s fundamental strengths because the threats we face in the world today are certainly not limited to al-Qa‘ida and ISIL. For while terrorists have contempt for democratic institutions and open societies, so do more than a few governments. And like so many authoritarian regimes that have come and gone through history, they tend to mistake democracy’s strengths for weaknesses.

The hard fact is that we do face a world of complex, interconnected threats, posing dilemmas that defy simple solutions.

In Syria, for example, millions of innocent citizens are caught between a vicious, brutal government and barbaric, brutal insurgencies, such as ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

In North Korea, a despotic leader is rushing headlong toward building ballistic missiles and a nuclear arsenal, bankrupting a nation already in misery, defying world opinion, and destabilizing the region.

And in the cyber domain—even as it facilitates the free flow of ideas that animates our open society—hackers, terrorists, and governments are exploiting its unregulated space to steal wealth and intellectual property, indoctrinate followers, and subvert democratic institutions.

But as we confront these and a host of other global challenges, it is constructive to bear in mind how our Nation has prevailed over a number of existential threats over the centuries. Through our Civil War, a Great Depression, two world wars, and a Cold War, America has relied on its inherent resilience as a republic to overcome every obstacle.

And while it may take many years—or even another generation—we will prevail in the war against al-Qa‘ida, ISIL, and their ilk, just as we have throughout our history. We will prevail, as ever, by staying true to the principles that moved Lincoln to call this Nation “the last best hope of earth,” which it remains to this day.

* * * *

If there is a silver lining to the tragedy of 9/11, it is the tremendous wave of patriots who stepped forward to serve their country in the wake of those attacks. Many of them came to CIA, and we are a far greater Agency because of it.

Thirty-three stars of the 117 on CIA’s Memorial Wall attest to the lives of Agency women and men lost in the line of duty since September 2001. The first of them was Mike Spann, a remarkably brave and dedicated officer who came to us from the Marines and was the first American to die in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, on 25 November 2001.

We will always remember Mike—and all our colleagues who died combatting terrorism—for their valor and supreme skill, but we remember them too for their decency and compassion. For just as the terrorists measure their success by the lives they cut short, the misery they inflict, and the darkness they spread, our officers distinguish themselves precisely because of the lives they save, the hope they provide, and the freedom they defend.

The same holds true for the firemen, police officers, and paramedics who died here in Manhattan 15 years ago, along with the innocents they tried so hard to save—all of whose stories are lovingly preserved and retold by this wonderful museum.

I have never come back to New York without being inspired. And as someone who has been given the honor of serving and protecting this country, I will always draw inspiration from the indomitable spirit that sent those firefighters up the stairwells of the burning towers that once stood on this site—and that built the gleaming blue spire that now dominates the skyline of this, the greatest of cities.

Thank you all very much.


Posted: Sep 27, 2016 04:41 PM
Last Updated: Sep 27, 2016 04:41 PM