John Farmer Jr. visited Rider’s Lawrenceville campus on Sunday, September 12, to discuss “The Legacy and Lessons of 9/11” in an event sponsored by The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics of Rider University.
Sean Ramsden

John J. Farmer Jr., principle author of the 9/11 Commission’s final report

In the nine years since the still-shocking attacks of September 11, 2001, those who vividly recall the horrors of the day have had ample time to reflect on the ways our world was forever changed over the course of a few hours.

Behind the stories of personal loss and national tragedy, a factual account of events needed to be pieced together, one that would reveal the true logistics of 9/11, and could consequently be used to better prevent such an attack from ever again shaking the United States.

John J. Farmer Jr. was a part of that effort. As a senior counsel and team leader for the National Commission of Terrorist Attacks on the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission, Farmer led the investigation of the country’s preparedness for and response to the terrorist attacks and was a principle author of the Commission’s final report. He visited Rider’s Lawrenceville campus on Sunday, September 12, to discuss “The Legacy and Lessons of 9/11” in an event sponsored by The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics of Rider University.

Among the lessons Farmer learned through his work was the importance of training people at all levels for unplanned events such as the hijackings that precipitated the attacks. Protocol among top decision-makers did little to help those who typically come into contact first with would-be terrorists.

“We know now that crises like this will be lived from the ground up, so we have to start planning for the way things are going to happen,” said Farmer, now the dean of the Rutgers School of Law in Newark. “We need to train and empower people at lower levels to make decisions and then stand behind them, even if they turn out not to be the decisions the people at the top might have made.”

Famer, who was serving as New Jersey Attorney General at the time, recalled racing to Liberty State Park in Jersey City to oversee the landing point for evacuations and emergency medical treatment.

“We anticipated some kind of mass casualty situation in New York, and we thought as many as 50,000 may be dead,” he recalled. “As it turned out, it was nothing like that. There were actually too many ambulances at the scene. It was high anxiety and nerves were frayed. No one understood clearly what was going on.”

Like many high-ranking law enforcement officials, Farmer was familiar with Osama bin Laden, primarily from FBI briefings he received prior to 2000 relating to any possible terrorist strikes centered on the arrival of “Y2K.” Other arms of the government were as well, but Farmer said one of the things that hampered efforts to prevent the attacks was the failure of various agencies to share the information they had gathered – even once the irregularities commenced that fateful morning.

“By the 1990s, the Cold War had ended, and lots of these agencies were redefining themselves, and reengineering the federal government in a way where the Soviet Union wasn’t our biggest threat anymore,” Farmer explained of groups like the FBI, the CIA, the FAA and NORAD, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command. “Nothing existed to integrate the information and indentify the threat that existed. There was a lot of bureaucratic drift.”

Asked by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean to serve on the 9/11 Commission, Farmer happily complied and began the search for answers about many of these communication breakdowns.

“We were asked to reconstruct the day of the attacks, and ask why people like me had so little idea what was going on” at events unfolded, he recalled.

Farmer, who turned his experience on the 9/11 Commission into the book The Ground Truth: The Story Behind America’s Defense on 9/11, and the Commission found that the actual chain of events differed quite a bit from the way it had been reported.

“When we started getting documents back, it did not line up with versions we had,” he said. “So we cut off interviews – it was as if the Commission was not being taken serious – and we asked Tom Kean to issue subpoenas.”

Able to review tapes and better line up events of the day, the Commission found a widespread, if not coordinated, effort to shift responsibility and avoid embarrassment. Though the Commission turned up things like fabricated timelines, for the most part, problems again boiled down to the failures of separate agencies and authorities to effectively communicated and share information.

“We also came to the realization that the first line of defense wasn’t even the agencies, but the passengers and crews on the planes,” Farmer said.

The 9/11 Commission issues a series of recommendations based on their findings, but many problems remain unsolved, Farmer explained. Among them was the creation of a director of national security, someone who would oversee the integration of the integrated intelligence authorities.

“The problem is that the Pentagon retains 80 percent of the intelligence budget,” he said. “There have been six directors since, but the issue is they are given all of the responsibility, but very little clout.”

Farmer said that witnessing the same types of communications failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 prompted him to write The Ground Truth. “it was the same thing – leaders talking to each other and sharing bad information, while people on the ground are having to make life-or-death decisions without any official direction,” he explained. “It was another case of continued failures to integrate.”