Five Years Later: Lessons Learned From Sept. 11

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," September 9, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Monday marks five years since the most devastating terrorist attack on the American homeland. This week, President Bush presented a progress report on the steps taken since 9/11 to make the country safer.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We learned the lessons of September 11. We're changing how people can work together. We're modernizing the system. We're working to connect the dots to stop the terrorists from hurting America again.



GIGOT: So what are the lessons learned from September 11? And where do we stand in the war on terror?

Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger, as well as Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Members Dorothy Rabinowitz and Rob Pollock, and columnist John Fund.

Dan, looking across the last five years, what are the successes? What have we, as a nation, done right?

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & WSJ DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, I'd say the answer to that is pretty simple. Virtually, all of the anti-terror programs exposed on the front pages as an attack on our civil liberties have, in fact, been successful assaults on the terrorists' attempt to destroy civilization.

Let's go down the list, one, electronic surveillance, the warrantless wiretaps; two, the SWIFT program to monitor financial transactions; and three, interring these homicidal people in Guantanamo.

What all of that reflected, it seems to me, was Bush's success at getting the national security bureaucracies actively engaged in fighting terrorism rather than what we had before 9/11, which was a kind of passiveness to their strategies.

GIGOT: And that represents a conceptual change in how we fight this war, from the law enforcement mentality, which we used to treat it, where we took — remember after the first World Trade Center bombing, we didn't even bother to interrogate Ramsey Yousef, one of the plotters, very much.

So it's a conceptual change too, Rob.

ROB POLLOCK, WSJ EDITORIAL BOARD MEMER: Yes, it's a big conceptual change. You know, it's not just these policies of interrogation and so forth that have been used against Al Qaeda. But of course President Bush has taken a longer-term view as well.

But we need to dry up these swamps where Islamic radicalism grows, which, for course, has brought us into Iraq and into Afghanistan. And that's the other big conceptual change.

GIGOT: The idea of going after state sponsors of terror, which we never did before.


GIGOT: But we talked a little bit about it. We talked a good game against Iran and so on. But this time, actually, we've gone in and said, look, you will not have these refuges.

JOHN FUND, COLUMNIST, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: It's easy to focus on the bad news of this fifth-year anniversary. But I think we also have to focus on what has worked.

If you'd asked people — and polls were taken right after 9/11, "Do you believe there will be an attack on the American homeland in the next few months or a year?" Eighty percent of the American people said yes.

That hasn't happened. Obviously, that has something to do with the steps that Dan and others just mentioned.

GIGOT: Dorothy, on that point, we're hearing an argument made more and more now by people five years after, as memories fade, that somehow we overreacted as a nation to this event; that, in fact, it wasn't that great a threat as witnessed by the fact that we haven't been attacked.

What's your response to that argument?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, WSJ EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: My response to that is to always go back to Winston Churchill, who's always good for a line or two on this.


And he said most pointedly that "counsels of prudence and restraint led directly to the bull's eye of disaster." And those are the truths here now too.

But you have to really look into what is the psychological impetus babble about its overkill. Why is this? Because, really, I do not think they want to acknowledge that Bush has been successful and that we have not had an attack of this kind.

GIGOT: Interesting.

POLLOCK: Look, my response to people who say it wasn't as great a threat is, look, there was no surprise on September 11 about who this was. We didn't spend very long thinking, gee, who flew the planes into those buildings.

Everyone who was following the news knew it was Usama bin Laden, knew it was al-Qaeda.

Why did we know that? We knew that because they'd hit the USS Cole in 2000, because they'd hit the African embassies in 1998, and because bin Laden kept going on TV and declaring Jihad against the United States. I mean.

FUND: And also saying that the lack of a U.S. response emboldened them to try again.

GIGOT: Well, what about the progress against WMD? Because you have had Moammar Gadhafi turn states evidence against himself and blew up his own WMD program. We rolled up the A.Q. Kahn network, which was the Pakistani who was spreading WMD to places like North Korea and Iran.

That is a significant change. We didn't have those successes before 9/11.

HENNINGER: Yes. And you know what, Paul? I think this actually points to the biggest question of all, and that's whether going into Iraq has been a success or failure, or whether it was a huge mistake.

You know what? I think ultimately it was a success.

What is the other biggest problem on the table right now? That is Iran's nuclear program. Clearly, the Iranians are seeking nuclear capability.

If we had not gone into Iraq, if Saddam had been allowed to stay in power, and if he watched Iran gaining nuclear capability, there is no question that he would have sought the same thing himself rather than allow him to become under the foot of the Iranian mullahs.

GIGOT: But this issue of Iran, Iraq, and I would throw in Afghanistan too, are very unsettled at this point. We have not really won those conflicts yet.

We still have a lot of nation building, if you can use that phrase, to do. We still have insurgencies in both places, a very active one and sectarian strive in Iraq.

And then, in Afghanistan, the Taliban is still a nuisance at the very least, John.

FUND: Well, I would submit we haven't paid enough attention to Afghanistan in the last few months. We've turned over 90 percent of the territory of the country to NATO's troops. And they aren't doing the best job they could.

I think we need a stepped up effort in Afghanistan.

POLLOCK: The other thing I think it's important to remember is, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself pointed out in that famous memo, the war on terror's going to be a long, hard slog. And I think we have to be careful about having expectations that are too high.

GIGOT: Do you have — quickly, Rob, any second thoughts about going into the state-sponsored places and trying to replace the regimes?

POLLOCK: No second thoughts at all. I think, as Dan said, there was not a benign alternative to going into Iraq.

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