Roger Cressey | Five years of fits and starts

Cressey was the National Security Council's staff director for transnational threats

In case you haven't noticed, we still have a problem convincing people that cybersecurity is a serious issue.' Roger Cressey

Rick Steele

That lovely morning, Sept. 11, 2001, Roger Cressey had a doctor's appointment before he went to his office at the White House, where he was working as the National Security Council's staff director for transnational threats.

'My pager started going off,' Cressey recalled. 'I picked up a voicemail message, and in that classic understated way my assistant had said, 'Something has happened, you need to get back to the White House.' I was on K Street, walking back from my doctor's office, when my wife called and said, 'Did you know a plane hit the World Trade Center?' It was at that point that I started running.'

By the time Cressey got to the White House gates, an evacuation of the building was under way. He convinced the guards that he really did have to go to the Situation Room. One of his most vivid memories is of walking into the room and seeing Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney and several members of the security council staff watching events unfold.

'We had a very large plasma-screen TV in the Situation Room. I had stepped out of the videoconference to take a call. I was on the call when the first tower collapsed,' he said. 'We all paused for a second to watch it collapse.'

He knew at that moment that the country had fundamentally changed, but he could not know how it had changed, or how it would affect him.

The most striking personal effect is that Cressey is no longer in the government.

'I never planned to leave the government. I thought I was going to be a career government bureaucrat,' he said. But the events of that day, and the infighting in its aftermath, eventually led to his resignation.

'When people come into office with preconceived notions about how the world works, how things have or have not changed since they were last there'that was one of the problems they didn't fully appreciate, that the world had fundamentally changed since 1992,' he said.

Cressey started his own company, Good Harbor Consulting LLC, in a northern Virginia suburb. He recruited his White House boss, Richard Clarke'President Bush's former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, now known for criticizing the administration for not taking the threat of a terrorist attack seriously'to become chairman of the company.

'In case you haven't noticed, we still have a problem convincing people that cybersecurity is a serious issue,' he said. 'Our government, [whether] Republican or Democrat, is reactive by nature. We only rise to the occasion after the event.'

Now that he's on the outside looking in, Cressey has become much more visible himself, appearing frequently on national news programs to discuss different aspects of terrorism and government policy. He sees some progress in federal efforts over the past five years, but not all that is needed.

'I think we're doing better on information sharing'when you recognize there was no place to go but up,' Cressey said. 'The volume of information shared between agencies now is far higher and more frequent, [but] is the information any better than before? That's an open question.'

He also believes that information sharing is working better horizontally, among federal agencies, but vertical sharing'particularly from the federal government down to state and local levels'is nowhere near where it needs to be.

'Where it is being done well is a place like New York,' Cressey said. 'The NYPD has created a structure that should be emulated, to the extent it can, all over the country. ' They don't rely solely on the federal government' for information.

Cressey cited integration of the various databases scattered among law enforcement and intelligence agencies as another step in the right direction, but said that government agencies wrestling with terrorism issues still suffer from 'groupthink,' and do not challenge assumptions being made about motives, means and objectives, which also limit the value of sharing information.

It's hard to make forward progress in the global war on terror if one doesn't apply the lessons learned from the 9/11 attack, Cressey said.

'The president learned the right lesson of 9/11'that we can't wait for threats to grow'but he applied it in exactly the wrong place and the wrong way by invading Iraq,' he says.
As a result, the successes in the global war on terror have been primarily tactical, Cressey said.

'We've had some important successes, taking down leadership and rolling up cells,' he says, but 'strategically, I can't argue we're in a better position now than five years ago. There have been policy choices that have resulted in unintended consequences. What has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam has strengthened the jihadi threat we face, not weakened it. Iraq will be remembered as the war of unintended consequences.

'I think it is an absolute miracle that we have not been hit since 9/11, because despite all these tactical successes, the vulnerabilities that are still exposed make us a wide-open target,' he continues. 'It's not a criticism of the rank and file, they are trying to do their job in difficult circumstances. But it is a failure of leadership at the senior levels at Homeland Security that has resulted in the mismanagement of programs, policies and money. Those are resources that we can't get back.'

The most important issue the government still needs to grapple with is obtaining actionable intelligence, Cressey said.

'It was the problem pre-9/11, it's still the problem today. How do you develop actionable intelligence so that you can not just prevent attacks but roll up networks well before the execution phase? That's a long-term challenge,' he said.

'Strategically, how can we better position the United States to counter the ideology and propaganda of the global Sunni extremist movement exemplified by al Qaida? How can you do it when the messenger is not trusted by the audience it seeks to influence? No matter what the Bush administration says or does, it will not be accepted by the Muslim world because the administration has become so discredited in the eyes of that audience.'

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