Cool as McCumber

Like many Americans, my wife and I were able to take part in the Sept. 11 remembrance activities and services in our community. On Saturday the tenth, we got up early, fired up our Harley and rode to the staging point for the USO Charity Bike Ride. More than 100 other bikers showed up for the 100-mile trip through the Carolina countryside. We were blessed with a picture-perfect day. At the halfway point, we stopped for a brief service and wreath laying at a memorial for the victims of 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror — or whatever it’s being called by the Administration this month. It was a somber ceremony in spite of the fact most of the veterans and active-duty riders were wearing leather vests, bandanas and bowed their heads while holding their helmets.

The next day, there were church services, flag raisings, parades and trips to other memorials. We all recounted where we were that fateful day, and talked about how we felt and reacted. Ten years ago, I even had some long-lost relatives locate my cell phone number and call asking if I was still at the Pentagon, and whether or not I was OK. I reminded them the last time I walked out of the Pentagon in uniform was 1994.

As my wife and I prepared for bed that night, we discussed many sobering events over the last decade that have their roots in the events of that day. We discussed our nephew who received his purple heart from wounds suffered during a mortar attack on the Green Zone while he was providing medical help to wounded soldiers of the 82nd Airborne. We mentioned our friends who lost their talented Eagle Scout son in an enemy engagement in Afghanistan. We also remembered all those we know and love who continue to serve in harm’s way.

We remembered how everyone stood together on September 12th, ready to take on the threat that had brought their fight to our shores. There was talk around every dinner table and calls for action. Politicians called the public to mobilize, but it is always the young, brave and patriotic who answer the dire call to offer their lives in order to protect those they love back home in Illinois, Nebraska, Maine and Puerto Rico.

There are other remnants of 9/11 that are less noble. Political infighting and grandstanding over the site of the World Trade Center have marred the memories of those who died there that morning. A new bloated and inefficient federal bureaucracy was deemed necessary to respond to the attack. The politicians graced it with the faintly fascist sounding name of Department of Homeland Security (It echoes for me the Nazi’s Vaterland and the old Soviet Union’s Motherland monikers). There were calls for sweeping new federal powers to ostensibly prevent further terrorist attacks that are rife with opportunities for abuse.

Last week, several TSA “officers” were arrested for taking bribes to look the other way as drugs were flown from city to city. Federal agencies like DHS issue “credible warnings” about potential terrorist attacks, but keep any and all facts close to their vests. Obnoxious overhead announcements in airports are played every few minutes to tell you not to accept that ticking package full of C4 and wires from the suspicious looking guy who isn’t taking the flight. People are still forced to whip off their shoes and subject themselves to providing ghost porn images to the Feds in order to board a plane.

9/11 was a sucker punch. The hijackings caught us all sleeping at the switch. We had information that suspicious persons were taking very unusual courses of study at flight schools. There were precursors such as the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 by radical Islamists, yet we remained blissfully ignorant of the growing threat to our citizens. There were many reasons for our somnolent lack of preparation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks: isolation of intelligence within agencies, lack of coordination among law enforcement, and simple disbelief that such an attack could occur. We got our sucker punch.

Irrespective of the steps taken in the wake of the hijackings, the sucker punch usually only works once. It is debatable how much all the reorganizations, new federal agencies and new laws have actually contributed to thwarting similar attacks over the past decade. The public demanded action, new agencies and new laws to keep innocents safe, and our political representatives were more than happy to comply.

If your organization is ever the victim of a security sucker punch, it might be best to spend some serious time reflecting on your response. In the wake of a security breach, there will always be calls for sweeping changes and new rules. Maybe a few simple changes and a new awareness are all that is necessary.

Risk professionals have determined that two changes since 9/11 have been the most effective: stronger cockpit doors, and new hijacking response procedures. Perhaps we should have stopped with that.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, e-mail