With the first news of the Paris terrorist attacks 10 days ago, Thomas Kean Sr. said his immediate thought was that it caught more than the public by surprise.
“The intelligence agencies had told me that they didn’t think ISIS had the capability to pull off something like this,” said the former New Jersey governor and co-chair of the national commission on the September 11th attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
“They didn’t think they’d have it for another year or two,” Kean told NJ Spotlight in an interview on Friday.
“Well, they have it,” he said. “This is something that is a new capability, a dangerous capability. It is a game changer.”
And as much as that has troubled him, Kean said the reaction in this country from politicians — including his successor and one-time protégé Gov. Chris Christie — to talk about closing U.S. borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees has been just as disconcerting.
“That would be a tremendous victory for ISIS,” Kean said. “That is what they want. They want a war of civilizations. They want this to be us against everyone else.”
“There are 1.7 billion Muslims in this world, and this is a one small little group,” he said. “We would not have stopped a number of attacks over the last five years were it not for being alerted by Muslims in mosques who would tell us to be careful of this guy or listen to this guy.”
“They are our best friends, and to say these are not good Americans is crazy,” Kean said. “They are wonderful Americans who risk in some cases their own lives to save ours.”
Kean’s comments came in an interview following his appearance with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker at a public forum on Friday at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown. Hosted by United Way of Northern New Jersey, the forum heard Kean and Booker on stage discussing a wide range of issues regarding the working poor in the state, touching on everything from preschool to the minimum wage.
But their comments afterward about the war on terror proved equally provocative. Booker, in a separate interview with NJ Spotlight that night, echoed many of the same sentiments as Kean regarding the Paris attacks and the subsequent debate among mostly Republican politicians over refugees coming into the U.S.
“We should all be concerned, but what is most frustrating is we have all this political posturing going on,” said Booker, a member of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee.
“Of all the ways to get into this country, the most difficult way is through the refugee program,” Booker said. “Eighteen to 24 months … it is a very difficult program. My bigger concern is the visa-waiver program … Somebody who’s a foreign national from England could come into the country and go to a gun shop and buy an automatic weapon.”
When asked specifically about Christie’s comments last week where he suggested barring new Syrian or Iraqi refugees from coming into New Jersey, Booker said: “The governor can express his opinion all he wants, but this is a federal issue. I will do everything I can to keep New Jersey safe, but I’ll also have us never, ever, ever turn our back on our values.”
Following an op-ed he wrote in USA Today with 9-11 commission co-chair Lee Hamilton, Kean on Friday was expansive on the topic, speaking about how the nation has not learned enough from the lessons of the September 11th attacks.
While it has improved its intelligence and “hardened” its homeland security, he suggested the U.S. needs to rethink its current military strategy, including enlisting others — including sometime rivals — into the fight.
“There need to be ground troops. You can’t do it by air, you can never do it by air,” he said. “And my own view is this president needs to provide the leadership, the way George Bush Sr. did when he got together the coalition of the willing with sixty to seventy countries involved.”
Still, Kean said the battle is more than military.
“We have emphasized too much the military, and we have an awful lot of other weapons in our arsenal,” Kean said. “And we have to use them.
“When we were fighting Communism, we were using every weapon we had,” he said. “We didn’t just have troops in Europe, we had the Marshall Plan. We had Voice of America, all those different things that were humanitarian. And we are not using them now in [the Middle East], not selling what we believe. And it will be difficult to sell if we keep knocking Muslims like we are doing now.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.