Public Service Innovators -- Heeding the Call of September 11 Richard Falkenrath, Assistant Professor of Public Policy

One of a series of profiles of members of the extended Kennedy School community who responded to the crisis after the September 11th attacks.

September 11, 2002
Miranda Daniloff

For Richard Falkenrath, September 11, 2001 was the day that his work in academia - his Kennedy School research into the nightmarish prospects posed by the possibility of a domestic terrorist attack -- became a reality for him and for the nation as whole.

Author of the 1998 book America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack, Falkenrath understood that the possible terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction against American cities was a growing post-Cold War threat. He co-founded the Kennedy School's Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness to assist professionals who might be called to the frontlines to deal with such attacks - emergency medical workers, firemen, policemen, public health officials, lawmakers and policymakers. The goal of these Executive Sessions was to coordinate the responses of all agencies and officials so they could effectively deal with crises that to most at the time, seemed like an extremely remote possibility.

That remote prospect became too real that fateful Tuesday when Falkenrath turned on his television at his secretary's behest. "I knew I was witnessing a world changing event," he said. A short time later, he saw the smoke from the Pentagon drift into his view. He was among the staff that evacuated the White House as Vice President Cheney rushed to the bunker.

Some ten days later, following the administration's announcement of the creation of the Office of Homeland Security, it was clear that Falkenrath would be tapped for a prominent role. In a backgrounder for press, Vice President Cheney quoted from one of Falkenrath's writings on the issue. And indeed in early December, Falkenrath was appointed as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Policy and Plans.

In his new role, Falkenrath traveled around the country gathering information from those on the frontlines: emergency personnel as well as public and private sector workers. He recalls how he was emotionally struck when he visited Ground Zero in New York last February. "That was the day that they recovered the remains of eleven firefighters and [brought them out] in a big procession up the bridge," he said.

Working directly with Governor Tom Ridge, Falkenrath's primary responsibility is to advise the director on a broad range of issues from national strategy to dealing with Congress. "There are always meetings" and lots of briefings on Capitol Hill, he says. Currently Falkenrath is working on the legislation that will allow the new department to come into existence.

For Falkenrath the events following September 11, not only thrust his work into the national spotlight, but also confirmed something he already knew. "I had an incredible run at the National Security Council," he says, referring to the agency where he was steeped in the details of nuclear proliferation cases abroad. "September 11th challenged and reaffirmed my sense that this is an important time to be in public service and in government."

Photo by Tina Hager

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