WATERSMEET, Mich. — U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, a Republican who represents Michigan’s first district, served as commanding general of the Marine Forces Reserve and the Marine Forces North. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general. He lives in Watersmeet in the Upper Peninsula.
Q. What do you recall about 9/11? Where were you on the day?
A. I was at my house in with my wife, and her mother and father and sisters and brothers in law.
The phone rang and it was my daughter from California who had just given birth five days earlier on September the 6th to our first grandson and she was crying. And my first thought was, Oh my God, something’s happened to our new baby grandson. And she says to me, “Are you OK?”
I said, “I’m fine, why?” I was an airlines pilot for Northwest at the time as well as a Marine. She said someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center, and I said no really I’m fine. And we hung up and I literally went over to my TV – with the old rabbit ears with aluminum foil over it – and I turned it on in time to see the second plane fly in.
That’s where I was. At that time, my Marine Corps command, I was in command of all of the Marine Corps Reserve aviation and we had some of the first planes in the air over Washington, D.C. We had a squadron of fighters at Andrews Air Force Base. We got them all gunned up because we didn’t know what was coming next.
Q. What effect did the terrorist attacks have on the lives of Upper Peninsula residents? The Detroit Free Press did a story on the people who were killed. There was one fellow from the UP. who perished that day.
A. I believe the effect was national – because we were all in shock. It was almost like World War II. It sounds like Pearl Harbor all over again, only closer to home.
Q. What have the long-term effects been as far as how we’re preventing it from happening again?
The Department of Homeland Security was created right after 9/11 on probably the shortest period of time it would take to create a cabinet secretary-level capability in Washington, D.C.
I think it was 19 or 21 different functions of government. They consolidated them all into Homeland Security to do exactly the kind of things that are necessary to prevent future hijackings.
Think of the airline security that was beefed up, the TSA and all the security at airports just in general with understanding of, one, how the terrorists had gotten into this country and, number two, how they had gotten to do what they did.
I’ll give you one very, very good example. As an airline pilot, we were taught if a plane gets hijacked, don’t get the hijacker mad. All they want to do is get somebody out of Cuba or just get the ransom money. Just get the airplane on the ground, then we’ll let the hijacker negotiators do (what they do).
Those hijackers on 9/11 knew how the airline crews would react initially.
That was why the first planes were successful: the two into the World Trade Center, the one into the Pentagon.
But if you think about United flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania like an hour or so later. The change had already taken place. – the word had gotten out there were attacks, hijackers were killing crews.
The passengers and the crew took action on United 93 and brought that plane down rather than allowing it to be used as a weapon.
If there were heroes, and the heroes on 9/11 were countless from the first responders in New York who went into the burning towers and lost their lives to the people that literally boarded flight 93 that sacrificed their lives so others wouldn’t be hurt by that plane being used as a flying bomb.
So those are the kinds of things that America responded to across the board. People began to pay attention. And that’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that threat still exists – regardless of whether we’re in Afghanistan or not or other places that seem to be in the news. As long as we are in existence, we will have to do everything we can to counter that radical terrorist threat that wants to attack us on our own home soil.
Q. Homeland Security was a new cabinet, and the Patriot Act was the piece of legislation that also was enacted pretty quickly, right?
A. The whole of government – the executive branch, the legislative branch, especially, and working in some cases with the judicial branch – saw that they needed to act quickly. Because what is the first responsibility of any president? It’s to keep your citizens safe and secure.
Everybody got involved to create the Department of Homeland and then with the Patriot Act being passed to allow for certain intelligence gathering to happen, not a lot before that. Because remember this is not just the government spying on anybody.
You don’t spy on citizens because of a political agenda. And we’re never going to infringe on the privacy rights of American citizens. We need to make sure we have a balance of power.
We’re not going to sacrifice any freedom. We’re not going to sacrifice the rights that people have – the right to privacy – just because somebody in government has a good idea.
But at the same time, we still have to protect our citizens from bad actors.
Q. As I understand it, the Patriot Act allowed law enforcement to do more without having to get prior permission in certain cases. It was designed to make sure we’re on top of terrorist activity. It allowed for more surveillance and in some cases it probably did erode some right to privacy for ordinary citizens. How do you feel it’s played out?
A. The first priority of the federal government is to keep its citizens safe and secure without infringing on them.
Now what has changed since 9/11? 20 years ago we were not at war at cyber. Cyber is the new threat using only computers. This is about the people who are cast in charge of security for American citizens so they don’t overstep their bounds. So we need to continue as the threat evolves. Cyber threat 20 years ago was pretty nonexistent with the exception of trying to compromise people’s credit cards. Now it’s a whole different ballgame.
It’s incumbent on anybody in government to ensure that they’re doing the right thing. If it means we modify as appropriate the Patriot Act from time to time, that’s what you do, but you do not infringe on the rights of American citizens.
Q. We haven’t seen another attack quite like 9/11 that I’m aware of. What do you credit this from?
A. That’s only because we’ve stopped several attempts. There have been attempts made to do certain things. We have interagency coordination. We have stopped these before they have even happened.
This is why you need intelligent networks -- not just listening in on American citizens.
Intelligence networks that are robust can predict identity and stop bad behavior.
Most of these terrorist groups they leave a footprint and we watch them 24 hours, seven days around the world.
Q. Do you think these are going to go on indefinitely?
A. You tell me. …There is no easy answer. I applaud the men and women in uniform – they step up every day. A retired policeman told me, “We don’t police the neighborhoods; we police with the neighborhoods.”
It is the responsibility of American citizens to work with law enforcement and when they see abnormal behavior – things that aren’t quite right – everybody has to step up here. That’s how we keep ourselves safe.
Q. In your opinion, could 9/11 happen again?
A. I’d be a fool to say it couldn’t. Remember, you think there’s ever going to be another bank robbery? You think there’s ever going to be another hold up? Of course there is because we have bad people in the world.
I’ll say this, what we do know about these radical extremist groups is they don’t look at hard targets…They look for easy, soft targets. It’s incumbent on everybody to be on their game. Don’t expect somebody else to always do it for you. Work with law enforcement. But we are the greatest country in the world. My parents met during the Depression. My dad was in World War II, so I grew up hearing about how hard life was in the Thirties and Forties. We’ve had it pretty easy since then because of my parents and grandparents who stepped up. If we have people in our country who are willing to step up, we’ll be fine.