FAR HILLS, N.J. -- Former Gov. Tom Kean is getting back to the job of studying international terrorism — and how America can fight it more effectively.
Building on his work more than a decade ago as chairman of the 9/11 Commission and pointing to renewed fears among Americans over a series of recent attacks in the U.S. and Europe, Kean said he plans to launch what he describes as an exhaustive examination of U.S. terrorism strategy and its shortcomings.
“We’re in danger. No question about it,” Kean said during an interview at his office in Far Hills. “What we’re doing now is not working in many degrees. We’re spending enormous amounts of money to make this country a fortress.”
The new study -- announced Tuesday in Washington by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non-profit think tank — would go well beyond the scope of the 9/11 Commission and its 567-page best-selling report in 2004.
The 10-member commission, which included equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to promote a bipartisan discussion, focused primarily on the events leading to America’s deadliest terror attack, on Sept. 11, 2001.
This time, Kean said his effort — which will reunite him with his 9/11 Commission vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressional representative from Indiana — will take a much broader look at America’s war on terror, including the effectiveness of U.S. military power and whether “soft power” strategies that would include economic, educational and diplomatic aid might be more effective in some Middle East and developing nations where terrorist networks have found a home.
“It strikes me it’s a lot cheaper than war,” Kean said.
But the 81-year-old Republican, who is still considered a leading voice of his party’s shrinking moderate wing, warned that this effort may turn out to be a far more combative affair than his two-year chairmanship of the 9/11 Commission, when he fought with the Bush administration and U.S. intelligence services for more access to information about top-secret counterterrorism planning before 9/11 — and, as he sadly discovered, the lack of it.
The new study is also being timed — deliberately so, it seems — to grab the attention of a new presidential administration.
Kean said he plans to finish the study within the first few months of 2017 — just as the next president is settling into the White House.
Not surprisingly, the current presidential campaign and its contentious rhetoric was a key motivating factor in Kean’s decision to launch the study — and in the national discussion of terrorism he hopes to spark.
“We need unity,” said Kean. “We need to look broadly at policy and not just be reactive.”
With President Obama attempting to preserve his legacy and Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton locked in a tight race leading to the Nov. 8 election, Kean said he fears there will be little inclination for a balanced assessment and debate of U.S. terror policies.
“I think it’s time to ask ourselves: Is what we’re doing working?” Kean said.
Amid the increasingly polarized presidential campaign, Kean said he hopes his study might introduce potentially reasonable voices.
Having a balanced discussion of such a politicized issue as terrorism is certainly a noble wish. But Kean is under no illusions about the nature of politics at this point in time.
“Politics in both parties has become name-calling,” Kean said. “People say things that just don’t stand up to rational examination.”
Kean said it was especially distracting this summer when Obama, Clinton and Trump fought over whether it was appropriate to mention an Islamic link to foreign terrorism.
Kean said he prefers to use “Islamist extremism,” a term coined by the 9/11 Commission and widely accepted by Muslim scholars to describe the influence of radical politics in twisting mainstream Islamic theology to promote such ideas as suicide martyrdom.
Kean said that while he remains on good terms with Obama and maintains personal friendships with both Trump and Clinton, he has been turned off by the current political climate and how he feels it has stifled reasoned discussions of terrorism strategy.
Echoing sentiments first voiced in an interview with The Record in July, when he said he would skip the Republican National Convention, Kean said he has still not decided how he will vote in the presidential election. Lately, he said he has been pondering the possibility of supporting a third-party candidate, though he considers that unlikely.
“I’m disappointed in the policy directions that Trump has taken,” Kean said, citing, in particular, Trump’s stances on immigration. “I’m also disappointed in the lapses in Hillary’s judgment, which seem to come out every week now.”
With terrorism, Kean said he is particularly interested in studying the ways in which U.S. military action may have contributed to the spread of Islamist extremist terrorist cells beyond Afghanistan, where the 9/11 plot was hatched, to a disjointed network across much of the world — including the U.S.
“Terrorism has metastasized far beyond Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network,” Kean said. At the same time, U.S. policies — especially military attacks — have turned many moderate Muslims who might otherwise be friendly toward America into enemies.
Kean said a variety of surveys indicate that large segments of the Islamic world generally view the U.S. negatively because of its long-term military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He cautioned that he was not opposed to using the military against terrorists, even large-scale invasions by U.S. soldiers. But Kean said current U.S. policy seems far too haphazard, with special-operations soldiers used in one nation, unmanned drones in another and brigade-sized units in yet another as an occupation force.
“People ought to not look at the United States always as the country with the troops on the ground,” Kean said. “They look at us as the guy with the drones. They look at us as the guy in the tank. If we continue to be the man in the tank, we’re going to be trying to fight with one hand tied behind our back.”
Another area of study, said Kean, is cyberterrorism against U.S. government agencies as well as a wide array of corporate institutions, including key energy supply grids and banking. He said America’s intelligence agencies are decades behind in staving off cyber-attacks.
Kean said some intelligence experts now believe that vulnerable computers represent America’s top terrorism threat.
“We don’t have a proper defense,” Kean said, citing a variety of scenarios described to him by U.S. counterterror officials, including attacks on computer systems that control nuclear power stations and Wall Street financial transactions.
“That’s not science fiction,” Kean said. “It’s in the realm of the possible.”
How Kean’s study is received will likely depend in large measure on who the next president is — and, also, whether the political fissures running through Congress can be patched up.
Another factor that could affect the study is whether America is targeted for more terrorism, especially by disenchanted Muslim-Americans who attack as so-called lone wolves, without the broader support of a formal terrorist network.
Kean said he is not worried about whether his staff at the Bipartisan Policy Center can complete a solid assessment in the early months of the new presidential administration.
The key question, he said, is how long it will take to get the attention of Congress, the White House and the web of more than a dozen U.S. intelligence services and then to begin to change policies.
After the release of the 9/11 Commission report, Kean and his fellow commissioners — Republicans and Democrats alike — spent a year trying to reform U.S. terror policy and intelligence gathering. They never fully succeeded.
The first step now, Kean said, is recognizing the true nature of the enemy.
“We’re fighting an idea. This is an ideology,” he said. “You can’t beat an ideology simply by military means. We’ve got to use everything in our arsenal.”