A 40-year veteran of the U.S. counterterrorism community, Sheehan served as a top official for the State Department, the Pentagon, and the New York Police Department. As a military officer on the National Security Council staff for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he urged officials to place greater priority on the growing threat of militant Islamist groups, especially al-Qaida.
Later in his career, Sheehan focused on non-Islamist challenges to American peace and security. He warned that overreacting to terrorist threats had adverse consequences—including stoking Islamophobia that could alienate Muslim-American communities, making them less likely to provide tips that had helped thwart and disrupt numerous plots.
Paul Beston: Welcome to another edition of ten blocks city journals podcast, I’m Paul Beston, and managing editor of City Journal. And I'm joined today by Judy Miller, who was a contributing editor of city journal and a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times her memoir which was published in 2015 is called The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, but we're here to talk with Judy today about the life and career of a great American patriot and public servant Michael Sheehan, a longtime counterterrorism official who served in New York City and in Washington and whose work put him at the center of many of the battles and debates of the last generation. Michael Sheehan died on July 30th after a long battle with cancer you can find Judy's tribute to him titled Faithful Servant on the City Journal website and it's as good a career summary and remembrance as you'll find of him anywhere. Judy, thanks for joining us.
For the general public Michael Sheehan was a guy who generally worked behind the scenes he didn't seek the limelight as you say in your story didn't seek the glory but he kind of exemplifies those many people in our in our national security eyebrows you're just doing incredible indispensable work but aren't generally known to the public so for the general public who was Michael Shannon why was his career so important to the United States
Judith Miller: I think for all the reasons Paul that you just mentioned he was that faithful public servant somebody somebody who believed in service and the concept of service not for himself but for the nation and he was a soldier when I asked people how do you think Mike and I did know him well and consider myself a friend when I ask people that I was interviewing for this piece how would he like to be remembered people said as a soldier and a patriot and I think you captured that in the title of this article but bike was a kind of irrepressible force of nature and he was somebody who believed in doing the right thing even if he was wrong a guy who believed in changing his mind once he figured out he was wrong a guy who you said did seek the limelight but made an enormous contribution to our public safety I mean most Americans don't know Mike Sheehan but if you visit the Freedom Tower and the New World Trade Center complex you are safe and you are there because of Mike Sheehan because one of the many jobs he had and that was an extraordinary thing was the breadth and depth of his career in public service is that he when he saw the plans for the Freedom Tower he was then Deputy Police Commissioner for counterterrorism and that is trying to prevent the next 9/11 he took a look at the plans and then he took a look at where the hole was dug for the Freedom Tower and he looked at the roads and he said my gosh and I remember because he told me this over breakfast he said this is another terrorist incident waiting to happen this building is too close to the major highways its base is glass and we know from terrorism attacks that glass becomes a lethal weapon an explosion where people are killed in by flying glass than anything else he said I can't be the Deputy Commissioner for counterterrorism and not say something and do something and he went to Commissioner Ray Kelly who worked for Mike Bloomberg and he said Ray we've got to do something about this and he waged this relentless campaign against the most powerful interests in this city including Mayor Bloomberg who loved the Freedom Tower was I'm convinced everybody overtime that we had to redesign the building move it back from the roads make sure that the base was not glass but something more substantial that in the event that it was hit again people wouldn't die he he never took credit for it but was one of the many things he that he did in this all-too-brief live of his right and
Paul Beston: Of course the whole reason that we had to build a freedom towers of course when what happened to the original Trade Towers on 9/11 at the hands of al Qaeda and al Qaeda is of course a central aspect in the in his career and the story of his career and he was one of the very early voices I mean I think of John O'Neill and people like that who have been filed probably a little bit more more widely to two people who are these early warning officials and even as far back as the eighties yes that he was talking about what was happening in the Middle East I mean in Afghanistan and elsewhere bin Laden and al Qaeda and trying to get that on the radar screen of presidential administrations
Judith Miller: Right there is a very famous story and he actually said a version of this to me but it's recounted in Daniel Bolger's book Why We Lost about Mike Sheehan when he was then a military fellow at the National Security Council and this was in the Clinton administration and he went to the Pentagon and he and Richard Clarke who were kind of co-conspirators in the effort to get the government to do more about this unknown guy called Osama bin Laden at that point bin Laden had already taken out a ship one of our ships and he had already struck in several terrorist attacks but somehow the US government just wasn't focused on it and so Mike went to the Pentagon he was trying to persuade the guys he knew because he was a military guy right he comes up through the US Army Special Forces and he said look we've got to strike these targets and these targets and the Pentagon was hesitant the official saying you know where's the proof and what is the blowback and will we injure civilians and an attack and finally Mike just slammed his fist down and said you know what is it gonna take for you guys to do something about al-qaeda or is they'll kind of gonna have to hit the Pentagon and that was about a year before 9/11 and I often thought of those words and his telling me this story because he was so appreciative the few people singled out along with Richard Clarke by the National the 9/11 Commission as being one of those guys who kept warning and warning and he was like a dog with a bone you know he knew al-qaeda he had seen them in action he had watched American foreign service people come home in body bags and he was furious that we weren't doing more he had a cause that was behind you know administration's of both parties as Richard Clarke did I knew him for about 25 years 30 years I never even knew what party he was it wasn't important to him because he was serving the public interest when I think of what's happened to our politics when I think of what's happened to the country and how partisan we are how divided we are I think that Mike was the exact opposite of that he worked for George Bush he worked for Bill Clinton he was just a political he thought that what was in the national interest was all that mattered
Paul Beston: What kind of a thinker was he because you know you talk about his willingness to change his mind and also this great breadth of experience that he had he seemed you know sort of like down to the granular level of how to question a suspect and then all the way up to the bureaucratic infighting and he just seemed to be able to cross across all these levels on the counterterrorism mission.
Judith Miller: He had done everything in counterterrorism you could do from fighting drug dealers and terrorists and and the Sandinistas in Central America where he was a ranger jumped out of helicopters West Point graduate Airborne Ranger I mean first-hand experience the kind of guy who kind of killed a chicken by you know biting into its back all these things they have to do that just fill me with horror and and he he loved that he was a real guy's guy but he also knew how to step back he had done advanced degrees at Georgetown and how to look at a problem and how to evaluate whether or not what America was doing in terms of policy was working and for example he knew we've talked about al Qaeda but he also knew after 9/11 that there was another danger for us and that is that we would overreach we were building this huge national security intelligence department of homeland security structure which spent gobs and gobs of money and he knew firsthand that a lot of it was being wasted it wasn't being spent well he also knew that there was a danger that we were exaggerating al Qaeda he used to say to me again and again they're not ten feet tall you make a terrible mistake when you exaggerate them because you play into their narrative they want you to think that we're that they're 10 feet tall they're not look they're after 9/11 in this country they're 0 for 10 they've been trying to do another 9/11 they can't do it and that doesn't mean that he was complacent he was never complacent but he also knew that there was a danger in exaggerating their role and that we'd be fighting the last war Mike was always aware of the danger of kind of repeating his own meme and he became very much a critic of the national security post 9/11 structure that he helped create sure and that's tough to do intellectually you know to separate yourself that did that make him isolated and for allies you know I mean that kind of critical stance no it didn't because his credentials were so impeccable and because everybody knew his heart was in the right place and he just wanted to make things better he worried constantly about what we were missing what the next threat was he was a he and I disagreed about a lot of things he was a major gun guy you know I live in New York I don't need an Uzi to hunt for lunch and and yet it never in the way of discussion about how to do the right thing what was right for the nation what made sense what we could afford to do he was very worried about all the billions and billions we were spending without much visible effect well
Paul Beston: To that whole point I mean near the end of his life I mean how would you characterize how did he think that we were doing both on the domestic front of counter-terror and then you know the much more fraught issue of what to do overseas in foreign policy-wise where we've had so many different changes of direction
Judith Miller: A decade after 9/11, he had a seminar here at the Manhattan Institute and he talked about those very issues and I watched the video that was very difficult for me to do that right after learning of his death, but he was so prescient out evaluating the next threat but also talking about what we had accomplished she said you know the time has come to kind of pat ourselves on the back and say it has been a decade since 9/11 at that point and they haven't been able to repeat that they're on the run Isis is on the run in Syria they've lost all the territory they gained in Iraq they kind of been pushed back there they're now on the defensive and that's where you want to keep them he was feeling very good about the job of the CIA the FBI the Department of Homeland Security had done and he was also very optimistic about how the American people would withstand the next terrorist attack if it happened he he said we've got to be more like the Brits and the Israelis who kind of weather these things know they're part of modern life and move on with with life he felt good about that and he by the way one of his other accomplishments right after leaving the NYPD in 2006 was to set up West Point's first Center for counterterrorism analysis and thinking and because of that Center we know a great deal about trends and where Qaeda is and Isis are operating whether or not they're still able to protect terrorist power that was another one of his many many projects that he did I thought
Paul Beston: I was struck in your article too near the end just to show what kind of a restless thinker he was that his efforts near the end of his life included in terms of domestic counter-terror and domestic security he was beginning to move into the subject of the mass shooters.
Judith Miller: Yes
Paul Beston: And seeing this as you know it's a very real and obvious domestic threat that's cost cost all lives in recent years and starting to study that as well...
Judith Miller: Yeah, he even thought had some ideas about what to do about that for example he thought that the FBI ought to set up these centers for countering violence and active shooting I mean he saw this as a trend something that was picking up steam for reasons we don't quite understand and he thought that once again the FBI had to reconfigure itself so that the FBI would be better able to respond to and more importantly prevent such shootings Mike was a prevention guy if you can prevent an attack it's so much better than a good response to one
Paul Beston: Well you described in the article that you say in your article his legacy is as enormous as his loss and everything you've said here today seems to lend credence to that so these kinds of people are just not replaceable with what they know. and with what they've done so
Judith Miller: But he did train a generation of people who have come after him and are still involved in national security work of many kinds. I've heard from a lot of them one of them, RP Eddy, was a fantastic guy who ran now runs a security company who said Mike taught me how to wade through the bureaucratic BS to get stuff done and Mike mentored me and now I know that I need to net mentor the next generation another part of a legacy training the next generation Mike believed in that and he did it and he's inspired a whole new group of young analyst to kind of carry forward we'll see if they've succeeded he was kind of unique but hopefully his legacy will be felt not only at the Trade Center and at West Point and in all of the things and all the institutions that he contributed to but to the young men and women whom whom he'd counseled and tutored and mentored.
Paul Beston: He sets a high bar. Thanks for joining us, Judy, and I know it's a sad day for you because you knew him so well for so long.
Don't forget to check out Judy's work and more about this episode on our website, and follow her on Twitter @JMFreeSpeech. We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on twitter @CityJournal. And lastly if you like to show and want to hear more please leave ratings and reviews on itunes thanks for listening and thank you Judy for being here today.
Photo Courtesy Manhattan Institute