Juliette Kayyem: Remembering September 11

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Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: Hi, I'm Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. On September 11, 2001, Juliette Kayyem was on a train to New York. She was with her infant daughter. Kayyem was a national security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. We spoke with Kayyem that day just hours after hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. We got in touch with Juliette Kayyem again to get her thoughts 10 years after the attacks. Kayyem spent the last two years as an Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. Right how she's a National Security and Foreign Policy Columnist for the Boston Globe. We asked her first to describe her experiences on 9/11.

Juliette Kayyem: I had a five week old daughter, and we had taken the train into New York, and the first attack had happened before the first train had left Boston, and over the course of this two and a half hours people are getting phone calls and looking online to see what's going on. We arrived in New Haven once the second plane went into the second World Trade Center, and no one knew what to do at this time, and I just thought this is ridiculous. This train doesn't seem to be stopping. It's going into New York City. I have to admit, it was probably the only time ever, even 10 years later, I stood up, here I was with my daughter and said, "Look, I kind of know this world,"I had been in national security counterterrorism, "It is a bad idea to go into the city. Everyone should get off. "

Mullins: You stood up in the car, the train car you were in and said...

Kayyem: Yes. I just said, "Everyone get off."I spoke with the conductor. It was the weirdest thing because the Amtrak train had CNN, but it was taped, so everyone knows this horrible thing has happened, but you're watching this taped segment from whatever else...

Mullins: That had nothing to do with what was going on?

Kayyem: So people started to get off. By then, Amtrak had decided, and obviously New York City had decided no trains were going to come in, and at some stage I was able to reach my husband, and just said "You have to get in the car and pick me up."I then started getting a lot of media calls about sort of what was going on. People knew I was coming into New York City and thought I was on a plane, so there was also that personal aspect of it, so my mother, a whole bunch of people were sort of worried, as well, about me physically. Was I on one of the planes? I had decided the day before to take the train instead.

Mullins: So that's the point where we talk to you. I have to say, at the time, you were incredibly composed...

Kayyem: Yes.

Mullins: ...especially given what you're saying right now about having your newborn with you and knowing, at least, as much as you did know about what was going on at the time.

Kayyem: Right. I mean, it was very difficult. I reheard our tape and two things struck me when you're listening to it. First, I sound very academic and very governmental, and the other was my unwillingness to say, because I simply didn't have access to information, although I certainly knew that it was Al Qaeda.

Mullins: At that point you knew?

Kayyem: Almost anyone who had been in the field would know no one could have thought this through quite so well, and would have the desire to do it than Al Qaeda, and I think that I was even reluctant in that tape to say it was definitively, only because I had no access to information, it was all rumors, and â�" and the final thing I remember, and am willing to admit 10 years later, is that I was trying to play this role as the objective expert, but I remember hanging up the phone with you and to be honest, just bursting out crying. It was the combination of being stranded, being with my newborn, I have family in New York City, just this day that even if it didn't impact you personally, to be honest it impacted everyone personally, even counterterrorism experts. Eventually my husband picked me up and we drove back. That was eerie, too, because as you remember, the streets were empty. Coming back from New Haven to Boston was like a ghost town.

Mullins: I wonder, in the 10 years since, what's changed for you professionally? And personally, what do you feel as though you know now that you didn't know at the time about terrorism, even though you were a counterterrorism expert, and what was it like to work in counterterrorism before 9/11?

Kayyem: Then it was all foreign. So my professional trajectory has changed as well, because then it was, what are the rules about counterterrorism intelligence gathering, counterterrorism in terms of the capture of terrorists abroad. That just completely changed because of September 11th. What really grew after September 11th was this notion of homeland security and domestic preparedness. I had been in that field as well, and I found it intellectually very interesting. I think the notion of how do you counter a new thread, and a terribly violent thread, in a democratic society? That piece of counterterrorism, which includes, of course, military efforts, intelligence, diplomacy, all sorts of things, but that piece about how do you retain American democratic norms while still fighting the thread was the debate of the Bush administration, and certainly one that I engaged in. Ultimately, when the Obama transition began, I was asked to help with the transition and then join government. I was sort of shocked reentering federal government, just how the focus â�" it wasn't just the fact I was in Homeland Security â�" but so much of what federal government did was national security related, just simply because of the wars.

Mullins: You know, we don't hear the question asked that was asked so often, in say the four or five, six years after 9/11, especially during elections, and that is, "Are we safer today than we were then?"The temptation is to say, "Are we?", but also why isn't it asked...

Kayyem: More often?

Mullins: Probably because we haven't been attacked in that way again.

Kayyem: Right. I always hated that question because I never knew how to answer it. It's like, safer than what? Obviously, when you ask that question it's Al Qaeda and bin Laden, it's...

Mullins: Well, it's taking more precautions; it's checking shipments that come in...

Kayyem: Yes. I think that's right, and I think there's a tremendous apparatus that's doing that. Is it foolproof? No. Actually, to be honest, listening to â�" you asked me what has changed in 10 years, and listening to our interview 10 years ago, I still believe that we'll never be perfectly safe, and I think the American public has to be tolerant and maybe applauded at times because we would not, as individuals, tolerate a society that is perfectly safe. You know what that means? It means we have no mass transit, it means the T is closed, the New York subway is closed, whatever you want to call it. So I still believe that, and I think we are safer, and I think people are more vigilant, I think people are much more accepting of their responsibilities. We've seen a number of both terrorism and natural disasters, and I think we've learned from Hurricane Katrina, which I sort of view as another arc in this 10 period, that a nation too focused on terrorism may fail at the fundamentals of other things. Personally, that arc, over the 10 year period, I've had two more children and they all have different access points in terms of mom's career. My daughter is acutely aware of September 11th, my son, the middle one, of Hurricane Katrina, and then the youngest, who is now five, and I essentially didn't live with my family because of the spill, is very aware of oil spills.

Mullins: How do you talk to them, especially the oldest one, who was born six weeks before 9/11, how do you talk to them?

Kayyem: I'm pretty honest about what it is that's out there and what their mom does, and that the world is filled with bad things, but they're very lucky, and that's what they know. We live in a relatively peaceful society, and they have means and a house and support, and that's the way we talk to them about. It's funny, because when you talk about this trajectory, after years in government and in this field, this is sort of a pivot years for me, personally. I think in some ways, the 10 years that I'm a bit done as well, and sort of thinking about pivoting this year, as well. We all sort of think 10 years later, what's in store next? I resigned from the Obama administration and came back here just about the anniversary time.

Mullins: Juliette Kayyem, I'm happy to have you back here after speaking to you on that day, September 11, 2001.

Kayyem: Thank you.

Mullins: Juliette Kayyem is now a columnist for the Boston Globe and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.