Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said Wednesday that if there’s one lesson he has learned during time as a senator and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, it’s to “expect the unexpected.”
That, the retiring senator told a standing-room-only crowd at the George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium, requires being as prepared as possible for a “wide spectrum” of potential attacks. In many cases in recent history, especially 9/11, the U.S. wasn’t prepared, he said.
There was a “failure of imagination” ahead of 9/11, Sen. Lieberman said, referencing the report released by the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks.
“They meant we couldn’t imagine that something like 9/11, the attacks that occurred, could possibly have happened,” he said. “But they did.” Maintaining that “imagination” is the “very challenging task that I think we have to hold ourselves to in the future.”
Sen. Lieberman said now is a particularly apt time to discuss homeland security, the progress the country has made and the challenges that lay ahead, given this year is the 10-year anniversary of the act—championed by the senator—that created the Department of Homeland Security.
Its creation, along with the 9/11 Commission Report and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 are among the many important security milestones in recent history.
“As a result of these reforms we’ve seen real progress over the past decade in the way we defend our homeland and in the way we coordinate and share information in the intelligence community,” the senator said.
The government has a well-developed terrorist watch system, advanced screening for travelers and maintains effective security agencies. Overall, the Department of Homeland Security has “really been a success” and “measurably contributed to our security.” All of these components have prevented another attack similar to 9/11 from occurring, Sen. Lieberman said.
Moving forward, Sen. Lieberman said he has four major concerns about the future of the country’s security. The first is cybersecurity, because of the “tremendous vulnerabilities” that exist. Preventing attacks on this front, the senator said, will require a public-private national defense program. Without the cooperation of the private sector, the country cannot be adequately protected, he said.
Another concern is home-grown radicalism. The only two successful terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 have been carried out by radicalized Americans—the shooting that killed 13 people at the Fort Hood military base and the shooting at a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Ark. The threat on this front continues, Sen. Lieberman said, and will require the assistance of those in communities across the country to “help root this out.”
The third concern is regarding congressional organization. A number of committees claim jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security, making it difficult to pass bills pertaining to the agency, he said.
Finally, the budget is a major concern. It threatens to restrict funding on rising new priorities like cybersecurity. And it threatens to cut into the daily operations within the department. Sen. Lieberman said he advocates finding a way to limit growth in Medicare spending and raising revenues by increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Regardless, protecting the country requires constant vigilance, Sen. Lieberman said.
“There’s no final destination in the journey to better homeland security,” he said. “We just have to keep working on it.”
Wednesday’s event, “Homeland Security: A Look Back and Ahead,” was hosted by GW’s Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ambassadors of the Philippines, Estonia and Luxembourg were in attendance, as were representatives from the embassies of Sweden, France, Israel and the Netherlands. Frank Cilluffo, director of HSPI, and Ozzie Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program and senior fellow of the International Security Program at CSIS, moderated the event. (Full video of the event is available here.)
George Washington President Steven Knapp introduced Sen. Lieberman, lauding his achievements during his Senate career.
“He has earned a national reputation as a thoughtful, principled and effective legislator,” Dr. Knapp said. “He’s renowned not only as an effective representative of his state but as a national leader and, indeed, a true statesman who has worked across party lines to find common ground in the advancement of national priorities.”
Sen. Lieberman, in return, had high praise for GW’s HSPI and the CSIS.
“Their work has been extremely valuable over the years to our work on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee,” he said.