Congresswoman Jane Harman ’69 had long been fearful that America would become a target for terrorists. In August she described the terrorist threat as “more real, more immediate, and potentially more damaging to U.S. citizens than ballistic missiles or regional conflicts on the other side of the globe.” She added, “We have specific, real evidence that some terrorist effort is being trained on our major facilities.”
As she walked to the Capitol Rotunda for a meeting of the House Intelligence Committee on September 11, Harman received an urgent message from her staff: Get back to the office immediately. There has been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. “About that time the Capitol was evacuated . . . and members massed on the lawn in front of the Capitol,” recalled Harman. “We then received information that another plane was headed our way. It was 20 minutes out.”
The ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, Harman voices frustration that public attention was not focused on the risks facing the nation before September 11, but acknowledges that it may not have made a difference. “We could have done some things structurally and with respect to changing legal authorities, but I’m not certain that those things would have found all the clues necessary to prevent what happened,” she said.
In the weeks following the attacks, Harman introduced the Office of Homeland Security Act. This piece of legislation, cosponsored by a number of members of the House Intelligence Committee, would elevate the new Office of Homeland Security to a Cabinet-level position and would give the office the necessary funding to fulfill its mission.
Additionally, Harman argues that the nation needs to conduct a complete threat assessment to reexamine its vulnerabilities. Overseen by the Office of Homeland Security, this study would determine the relative threats of biological, chemical, radiation, nuclear, and conventional weapons to the American people and infrastructure. According to Harman, this information would help Congress create a new budget that would match U.S. resources to the nation’s greatest vulnerabilities. “Until we do those things,” she said, “we are going to have a series of ad hoc responses, some of which will be very effective and some of which will not be.”
Harman’s experience on the House Intelligence Committee during her prior congressional service (a four-term congresswoman, she left the body in 1998 to run for governor of California) and membership on the National Commission on Terrorism help her guide this effort, she says. “I hope I bring some appropriate background and skill to my work,” said Harman. “I certainly have landed in a critically important role.”