National Security specialist Juliette Kayyem reflects on 9/11


Juliette Kayyem at the States and Territories Hurricane Response Workshop in Tampa, Fla., January 2010 (Photo courtesy of flickr user jim.greenhill)

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Ten years ago, Juliette Kayyem spoke with PRI's The World just hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Looking back on the changes in the world since that day, the former assistant secretary of Interdepartmental Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security noted that there many things left unsaid in that first interview.

"I reheard our tape and two things struck re-listening to it," Kayyem said. "One is I sound very academic and governmental, and the other is my unwillingness to say because I simply didn't have access to information--although I certainly knew it was al-Qaida."

With regard to her certainty of the 9/11 suspects, Kayyem said, "Almost anyone who had been in the field [of national security] would know that no one could've thought this through quite so well and would've had the desire to do it as al-Qaida."

The day of the attacks, Kayyem had been travelling from Boston to New York City by train with her 5-week-old daughter when the first plane struck the North Tower. Recalling the worries and fears of that day, Kayyem said that although she sounded cool and collected to all the media with which she spoke, Kayyem was far from it.

"The final thing I remember and am willing to admit 10 years later is that I was trying to play the role of this objective expert, but I remember hanging up the phone with [Lisa Mullins] and, to be honest, bursting out crying," Kayyem said.

Before the 9/11 attacks, as a counterterrorism expert, most of Kayyem's work dealt with foreign lands and threats. After the World Trade Center fell, there was a dramatic shift toward "Homeland Security." And with the creation of the Homeland Security Department, Kayyem noted that such new ideas brought about new ideological negotiations as well.

"I found it, intellectually, very interesting," Kayyem said. "How you retain American democratic norms while still fighting the threat was the main debate of the Bush administration and ultimately one I engaged in when the Obama transition began."

Perhaps most striking is how Kayyem's young family has understood disaster and security since 9/11. The mother of three children, Kayyem noted that each of her children has lived under the shadow of a major national disaster. With her first daughter, it was 9/11, her middle child experienced Hurricane Katrina, and her 5-year-old knew the disaster of the BP oil spill. In the time since 9/11, Kayyem says that these other events have helped America widen its perspective.

"A nation too focused on terrorism may forget the fundamentals of other things," Kayyem said.

Read a full transcript of interview with Juliette Kayyem on The World website.


PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.More about The World.