In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941 in the coastal waters off the island of Oahu, five Japanese midget submarines were launched from the larger mother submarines that had carried them from Japan. Each midget sub was armed with two torpedoes. All five attempted to make it into Pearl Harbor to participate in the attack on the American fleet.
Shortly thereafter, the periscope of one of those midget submarines was detected by a U.S. Navy patrol vessel. Information regarding the sighting was sent to the USS Ward, a US warship cruising nearby. The USS Ward commenced a search and after hours of frustration was successful in locating the midget submarine in question. It began an attack and sank the vessel. Officers and men of the Ward saw rounds from the ship's main gun impact the submarine and watched it sink.
Immediately after the successful attack on this Japanese midget submarine the USS ward sent the following message to headquarters at Pearl Harbor. "We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area."
Circa 0730 hours the message arrived on the desk of Admiral Kimmel in charge of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor. The first wave of Japanese attack aircraft was already in the air. However they would not arrive over Pearl Harbor until almost 8 AM. The Americans had been granted an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. If Kimmel acted promptly, the Japanese would find the crews of all American naval vessels at general quarters, every anti-aircraft gun manned and combat air patrols in place over Pearl Harbor.
It was not to be. Kimmel disregarded the warning. He concluded that it was simply another false alarm. The fleet continued to slumber. The Japanese caught us totally unprepared, thousands died and large numbers of critical naval vessels were sunk at anchor.
It is an old lesson: the necessity to remain vigilant and to pay attention to warning signals. Yet this old lesson could not be more current or relevant at the present time.
We have watched over recent months as the number of terrorist attacks being staged in the West has escalated. We have listened as both all Qaeda and ISIS have called for action by Muslims living in the West. We have seen how many are answering that call.
The result has already been horrific. The Parliament in Canada has been attacked. Hostages have been taken. Soldiers and police officers have been murdered. A massacre has occurred in Paris, and one of the great cities of the world has been held hostage by terror.
Virtually everyday we hear reports of European authorities disrupting another attack or arresting another militant. Yet, it can get much, much worse if we allow it to.
There are 104 nuclear power plants in this country. We have known for years that security at these plants is inadequate. Report after report has documented the poor quality of the guard forces employed at these installations and the frequency with which they fail to protect the plants against even simple attack scenarios announced in advance. We also understand fully the stakes. A meltdown of a nuclear power plant near a major population center would cause mass casualties and force the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.
We have not fixed the problem.
There are over a hundred chemical plants in the country, which have on site quantities of chemicals sufficient to threaten the lives of at least one million people in surrounding areas. Efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to improve security have been a disaster. Paperwork and process have so hamstrung our efforts that almost no meaningful improvements to security have been made since 9/11.
Following the 2001 anthrax attacks our focus on the dangers of bio terrorism lead paradoxically to a dramatic increase in the numbers of labs in this country working with dangerous pathogens. Report after report has documented the failings in security at these facilities and the danger that terrorists might get access to the organisms necessary to stage a bio attack from one of our own labs.
The situation remains fundamentally unchanged. Security is inadequate. We are at risk.
Many of us have, since 9/11 clung to the idea that this "war" would be a short one and that the killing or capture of some finite number of key terrorist personnel would bring it to a relatively rapid end. It is time to abandon those delusions. This is a generational challenge. We will be defeating one extremist organization and simultaneously watching the birth of another for many years to come.
It is time to accept that and to prepare for the long haul. We cannot afford to do otherwise. Claims that nuclear power plants are secure when they regularly fail to defeat "red teams" that exercise against them can no longer be tolerated. It is time to dispense with rhetoric and wishful thinking and focus on ground truth and reality.
Kimmel was given a brief window of opportunity to prepare. He squandered that opportunity and ignored the warning the Ward provided him. We cannot afford to follow suit. Let's heed the warning and prepare now.