Former Obama official shares how 9/11 shaped his career and national policy

BY Mary Alice Williams, Anchor |

By most estimates, the United States has spent more than $2 trillion in counterterrosim efforts since the 9/11 attacks. Today, much of the focus has shifted to cyber, lone wolf and homegrown extremists. Mary Alice Williams recently sat down with former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who was one of the legal architects of the U.S. military’s counterterrorism policies while serving under the Obama administration.

Williams: You’d been back to New Jersey only eight months before Sept. 11, and you were in the city when it happened. What went through your mind?

Johnson: Correct. Mary Alice, Sept. 11, 2001 — which happens to be my birthday — I was back in my law practice in New York City. I had served for 27 months in the Pentagon as the general counsel for the department of the Air Force in the Clinton administration, and I remember 9/11/01 vividly, like it was yesterday. I drove to work, it was a beautiful day, crystal clear, blue sky and got to work around 8 o’clock and I was at my desk. And then 8:46 the world changed — 8:46 a.m. when the first plane hit the first tower.

Williams: And what did you do?

Johnson: Well, like many New Yorkers, like many Americans, I was captivated. I was captivated by the visual images of what I was seeing in my own eyes, from my office window, and going back and forth between TV and watching out the window. And I’ll never forget, when that tower collapsed, it was one of the few moments in my life when my mind literally could not believe what my eyes were seeing, because the World Trade Center towers had been such a fixture on the New York City skyline for so long. Like many New Yorkers, I went down to the street to see if there was something I could do, but given the nature of the tragedy, there wasn’t much.

Williams: Is that the reason that you went back into public service so rapidly?

Johnson: Sept. 11, 2001 was one of my principle motives for wanting to go back into public service, without a doubt. And so, I met Sen. Barack Obama in 2006. I became involved in his campaign, and I was interested in returning to national security. Now, on Sept. 11, 2001 there was no Department of Homeland Security, so I had no idea then that I would one day end up being secretary of Homeland Security.

Williams: You were, before you got to the secretary of Homeland Security job, you were in the DOD as general counsel to the Department of Defense. Did you have a hand in writing policy?

Johnson: In the early Obama administration, in the first Obama term, 2009 to 2012, I would say very definitely. I was the senior legal official for the Department of Defense. And so, with my colleagues, we helped craft the legal architecture for our counterterrorism efforts during the Obama years.

Williams: And how did 9/11 frame that document?

Johnson: 9/11 had almost everything to do with it, because 9/11 represented a new era — a new level of terrorism and the terrorist threat. And what we spent a lot of time doing in the Bush-Obama years was literally taking the fight to al-Qaida — al-Qaida and the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabab, in the places where they trained, where they set up their headquarters, where they recruited. And I’d have to say that we were fairly successful in taking out a lot of the leadership — Bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and others.

Williams: You wrote the legal OK to take out Osama bin Laden.

Johnson: I don’t generally talk about that publicly, but there are published reports to that effect.

Williams: What was that like for you to think about that?

Johnson: You know, it’s interesting. Bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011. In my mind, there are certain similarities between 9/11/01 and May 1, 2011 in that time seemed to move very slowly. The first plane hit 8:46, second plane hit 9:03, and by 11 a.m., the planes had hit, the towers had collapsed, United 93 had crashed. And May 1 was very similar in that time seemed to move very slowly. I was in the command center at the Pentagon, watching and listening to the heroism of our special forces in Pakistan.

Williams: Are we safer now?

Johnson: We are safer now in the respect that it would be much more difficult for a terrorist organization to launch a large-scale, 9/11-style attack from overseas on the United States. Our government, our intelligence community, does a much better job of detecting overseas plots from overseas.

Williams: Even in the Trump administration?

Johnson: Even in the Trump administration. Where we are challenged, frankly, are the homegrown, violent extremists — the so-called lone wolf who conducts a smaller-scale attack, like, for example, San Bernadino, 2015. Orlando, Florida, 2016. Where individuals radicalize in secret, inspired by something they see on the internet. And those types of attacks are much harder to detect, and it’s a more complex Homeland Security environment, therefore, which involves law enforcement, our intelligence community, Homeland Security.