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Former Homeland Security Officer From Maine On How 9/11 Changed Society, And What The Future May Hold

Nancy Gregory, hugs her sons Carl, left, and Gregory as they pay their respects to her husband firefighter Ken Kumpel at the National September 11 Memorial during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks at World Trade Center, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 in New York.
Mary Altaffer
Nancy Gregory, hugs her sons Carl, left, and Gregory as they pay their respects to her husband firefighter Ken Kumpel at the National September 11 Memorial during a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks at World Trade Center, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 in New York.

Life has changed significantly over the last 20 years. If you're a younger person, you might not know that some of those changes that have taken place are the direct result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Chet Lunner, who lives in Maine and is a former congressional chief of staff, worked at the Transportation Department and served as a Department of Homeland Security intelligence officer, a department which was itself born from the aftermath of 9/11.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: Immediately, one of the aspects that jumps to my mind is that of travel. The term "gels and liquids" I don't think was ever heard prior to that. Screening, the TSA itself, was a product of 9/11. So cast your mind back 20 years ago: Someone just gets on a plane for a nice little trip somewhere. How is it different now, the thinking behind that same trip today?

Chet Lunner
Chet Lunner

Lunner: You have to identify every single person who's on that airplane, you and the other passengers and the crew, and the person who cooked the breakfast that they'll serve, and the people who delivered it, and the people who clean the plane. There's an enormous population of people in U.S. society and around the world who were never subject to this sort of intensive situational awareness.

Security was sort of an afterthought. Airlines were in charge of it, not the government. So if you got screened at all, you got screened by someone who was minimum wage. The joke at the time was, if you went from a screener at the airport to Cinnabon food court worker, that would be a promotion.

If you were a truck driver, you could pick up your load at the harbor down here on Commercial Street in Portland without going through any security except looking at your shipping documents. Now you have to have a special federal document.

There's a bunch of external things like that, but internally, I think we changed as a nation, and it's just we have a different perspective of our lives.

Let's talk more about cultural changes. One of the phrases that I'd never seen before, or concept I'd never been aware of before, was the "if you see something, say something" concept. If you see an unattended package, you should call it in, if you suspect anything. That was kind of a new concept for a lot of people, wasn't it?

I suppose it was new to a lot of people. It wasn't new to those of us who were in the senior generations. You know, when when I was growing up, if you were a bad boy on the way home from school, Mrs. Smith would punish you and then call ahead so your parents could punish you some more.

That sort of sense of communal responsibility was strong back then, weakened until 9/11, and now I think needs reinforcing every day. We don't have a domestic intelligence force. We don't have, fortunately, a huge government agency that watches everybody's moves like they do in some repressive countries. So that leaves the responsibility up to every one of us.

So 9/11 also ushered in some new legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act. And when that was proposed, there were a lot of discussions, a lot of concerns about citizen privacy, government overreach. In your opinion, did any of those fears come to fruition?

I'm not aware of busloads of people whose lives have been ruined by the USA PATRIOT Act. I mean, there are obviously, and when you pass any law, there are at least two sides and sometimes a Rubik's Cube of opinions on what this might do. And that includes the Patriot Act, which I don't think has had any great impact.

There's always going to be somebody who abuses every authority you give them. For example, I know a guy who was an extremely, highly competent, very well experienced leader in the security business, and was up for appointment to lead a federal agency. And they found out in the background check that he had used his computer to check on his ex-wife's new boyfriend or something. He lost that job. His career was ruined.

If we accompany these authorities with severe punishments for abusing them, and have better oversight, I don't think it's an issue.

But it's not really that simple, though. Things never are. It has been an issue. There have been concerns arising over, say, the fusion centers that arose post 9/11, how they're using data, who is being tracked. People have been upset enough about what they've found out through leaks to propose abolishing the Maine fusion center. So concerns do still exist.

I used to run the fusion center network nationally. And the idea is, again, born out of 9/11. Because we don't have a domestic intelligence force and don't want one, we had to have some mechanism to connect our state and local police with this new threat that was overseas but hitting us on our own ground. There was no way to share the information because they didn't have the proper clearances, they didn't have the proper equipment that keeps the information secure as it goes back and forth. So that's why the fusion centers are in place. And it's a necessary idea in the post-9/11 atmosphere, and I don't think they're going to … something like that, we will always need.

You just used a term a second ago, the post-9/11 atmosphere. Here we are 20 years on, we've now pulled out of Afghanistan. Does that signal to you that there is actually a shift, and that we are entering a new era? And what is it from that post-9/11 atmosphere that you think is going to linger on into the future?

That's a good question. Certainly, an increased sense of situational awareness, better cooperation among the various people that have to keep us safe as a country and as individuals. People ask me, 'What's the biggest threat now facing the United States?' And, you know, I don't know from hour to hour — the vector changes and the specific group changes. But the biggest ongoing threat is complacency. You know, if we don't stay alert and awake, we don't have really good oversight, really good preparation and practicing our own defensive skills, if we don't have better execution than we saw on Jan. 6, where people couldn't talk to each other again, and didn't have authority to do things that needed to be done. And, you know, if we don't get better at sharing information with each other, that sort of complacency across the board is our biggest threat. So it's good to have this discussion. And, you know, keep these ideas alive.