On September 11, 2001, our country suffered the most devastating day in the living memory of most Americans. Nearly 3,000 innocent people died in a few surreal, nightmarish hours.
Fifteen years later, it is important to remember that the lessons of 9/11 were not only about terrorism—they were also about how national security leaders analyze dangers on the horizon, how they alert the public to the risk, and whether we are collectively able to act before those risks manifest in devastating fashion.
Before the 9/11 attacks, experts within the government recognized the danger that al Qaeda posed, but most Americans were unaware of the threat—largely because their leaders did not do enough to explain it to them. And despite the threat awareness inside government, few imagined that an al Qaeda attack would kill thousands of Americans, or that al Qaeda would use hijacked aircraft as suicide bombs.
The 9/11 Commission—on which we served—called the government's inability to foresee and prevent suicide hijackings a "failure of imagination." Unfortunately, we fear that the complacency and inaction that led to 9/11 may be repeating—not in counterterrorism, but in the cyber realm.
Electronic networks are the lifeblood of modern commerce, government, finance, and even social life. The list of high-profile breaches seems unending. Chinese-government-backed hackers have stolen the plans to dozens of our most advanced weapons systems. Iran has hacked into banks, oil companies, and even a dam in suburban New York. North Korea hacked into Sony Pictures and released reams of private data.
China, again, was behind the hack of more than 20 million security-clearance records from the Office of Personnel Management, a counterintelligence disaster for the United States. Now it appears that Russia is attempting to subvert our elections by hacking into Democratic Party organizations and leaking internal emails.
And those are only state-sponsored hacks; cyber criminals regularly steal credit card data, social security numbers, and other sensitive data from corporate systems. Perhaps most damaging, over the years Chinese hackers have stolen intellectual property worth trillions of dollars from American companies, in what former National Security Agency (NSA) Director Keith Alexander called "the greatest transfer of wealth in history."