Boston Herald : Cohen: Military hub works to prevent the next 9/11

Monday, November 25, 2013

Cohen: Military hub works to prevent the next 9/11

Rachelle Cohen | November 25, 2013

COLORADO SPRINGS — “A great wrong was perpetrated in our homeland. We will never forget.”

The words are inscribed on the walls where no one reporting for duty here can miss them. They drive everything that is done here at the joint headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).

NORTHCOM was born out of 9/11 — out of the government’s failure to “connect the dots,” a failure that allowed a terrorist attack on American soil.

Today it is the mission of NORTHCOM and its commander, Gen. Charles J. Jacoby Jr., to day in, day out, 24/7 connect the dots — bringing together the resources of the Pentagon, Homeland Security and working with civilian authorities in every community that calls on them for help.

“We’re stuck with the reality that we can be touched in the homeland,” Jacoby told a group of journalists and security experts in a visit arranged by the Heritage Foundation.

Then the briefing room grows dark and the screen fills with an all-too-familiar image — that of two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The moment is as real for this general and his operations staff 2,000 miles away as it was for those of us who lived through it that day.

“You couldn’t have had a better [local] response,” Jacoby assures.

But when the “incident” showed up on NORTHCOM’s systems — one of about a thousand such “incidents” that get their attention each year — Jacoby’s team went to work.

The initial reports of as many as seven possible bombs in the area set off a chain reaction of checks with both military and civilian partners. Was there any further activity on the air or the ground? Was this part of something larger? Was the homeland once again under attack?

Ruling that out was what they did here.

“Ten years ago we didn’t have that capacity,” he adds, and 10 years ago Boston’s own response teams would not have been bolstered by a decade of Homeland Security grants and training.

Sure this time it was homegrown terrorists — or at least adopted ones. But what about the next time?

“I’m often asked what keeps me up at night,” Jacoby said, “In the end what keeps me up at night is being late.

“I want to know about that threat before the finish line at the Boston Marathon.”

And so, ahead of next April’s Marathon, NORTHCOM is likely to play a supporting role. It does, after all, have the resources to keep watch on no-fly lists, and along with the FBI check networks of known terrorists. And if a surveillance drone or two would help, why NORTHCOM could do that too — if asked.

“Our job is to get left of the boom on this one,” he adds, using a military expression for prevention and for disrupting insurgents before they can do their dirty work.

And NORTHCOM does this all while helping interdict drugs, provide relief during natural disasters — fires, hurricanes, floods — and keeping the skies safe.

Oh and keeping an eye on some particularly bad actors like, say, North Korea, recently upgraded from a “theoretical threat” to a “practical threat” in the minds and operations of our military.

And right now all that is being done in an era of sequestration-mandated budget cuts.

It’s a blending of what Jacoby called the “home game and the away game.” Because that’s what it takes now.

So here in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain a twisted girder from the World Trade Center rises from a Pentagon-shaped planter anchored in soil from a Shanksville, Pa., field. It provides a reminder — as if one were needed — that constant vigilance is the price we pay for our freedom. There’s no longer room for error.

Rachelle Cohen is editor of the editorial pages.