It’s been seven years since the 9/11 Commission finished its work and made 21 recommendations for improving the nation’s posture against terrorism. A decade after the attacks, the panel’s co-chairmen say the federal government has made a lot of progress, but several of their most important recommendations have gone unaddressed.
In a new report card, the former commission chairman and vice chairman, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton highlight nine major areas they say the government has yet to address, while acknowledging
“It’s noticeable,” Hamilton said. “Go back to 9/11. Look at Katrina, which was very poorly handled. Then the oil spill. Better handled. Then down to Irene. We’re getting better at dealing with catastrophic events in this country.”
But the former commissioners say some of their recommendations have languished in Congress. In some cases, they’ve been flat-out ignored, especially in cases where the recommendations dealt with the reform of Congress itself.
Several former commissioners, who spoke Wednesday at an event unveiling the report card at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said Congress’ failure to consolidate its oversight ofthe Homeland Security Department is the most disappointing count on which the panel’s recommendations have gone unheeded.
Kean, the former chairman and a former New Jersey governor, said most of the jurisdiction over DHS needs to be brought under the umbrella of the House and Senate homeland security committees.
“This would avoid what exists now, with almost 100 committees and subcommittees that the DHS secretary reports to,” he said. “That’s confusion. It’s not oversight, it makes things dysfunctional. It means that the Homeland Security Department spends so much time preparing and testifying that they’re not spending their time protecting us.”
The report card cites an example of the confused policymaking the former panelists are talking about: The Senate Commerce Committee is in charge of the Transportation Security Administration, and consequently, for legislation dealing with security rules for air cargo screening. But the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over Customs and Border Protection and the rules for maritime cargo screening. The commissioners contend those two DHS components should be enforcing the same rules, and be overseen by the same lawmakers.
Former Washington Senator Slade Gorton, a former member of the intelligence committee and of the 9/11 commission, said it’s counterproductive for lawmakers to keep protecting their individual subcommittee turf. He said Congress needs to recognize that its overall authority over DHS would actually increase if that authority were more centralized.
“It’s that division of authority,” he said. “Even on the intelligence committee, the people from the Pentagon and the CIA didn’t really have to pay attention to us. The great advertisement for Congress to do this is, ‘Look, you’ve forfeited all of the movement in this direction to the administration by splitting up your authority.’ They should be motivated by the fact that if it were consolidated in two or three or four committees, the authority of Congress in what goes on would be greatly enhanced.”
Another recommendation for Congressional reform that Congress has failed to enact surrounds the way lawmakers fund the activities of the intelligence community. U.S. spending on intelligence activities has doubled since 9/11, and Kean said that spending is not adequately supervised.
“The basic issue here is that the intelligence committees don’t control the purse,” he said. “Agencies listen to the congressional committees who do control the purse. Currently, the House and Senate appropriations committees fund the intelligence agencies through the Defense subcommittees in the DoD budget. At a minimum, separate intelligence subcommittees should be established.”
The commission recommended that Congress create a bicameral intelligence committee to handle both the authorizing and appropriating functions for the intelligence community.
Commissioners say the slow process by which the government appoints and confirms presidential appointees also is a national security concern. Their initial report found vacancies in Senate-confirmed offices contributed to the failure to connect intelligence dots on 9/11.
There are some 3,000 positions in government that must be confirmed by the Senate. Gorton said the process remains badly broken.
“There are all kinds of really good people who just aren’t going to fill out the application forms because they’re so intrusive,” he said. “If they do agree to do it, they go through six months or a year of hell before they’re allowed to take the office. A bit more trust and an agreement by the Senate to deal with these nominations very, very quickly is a national security issue.”
Then there’s the organization of the intelligence community itself. The report card says the government has made huge strides in improving information sharing among intelligence agencies. But the organization that was supposed to coordinate and oversee that integration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, isn’t what the commission had in mind.
Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, another former commissioner, said ODNI was supposed to be a lean, but powerful office that could tear down intelligence stovepipes.
“The fact is the DNI does not have the power that the title implies,” he said. “And the staff has grown to over 2,000 people. We envisioned something less than 300. It’s not unique to the intelligence community, it afflicts all the agencies. But in intelligence, with the need for agility and sharing, it remains a very dangerous problem.”
Another item on the list of unfinished business: The creation of an executive branch board to be a watchdog for potential civil liberties violations. Congress and the White House have enacted legislation to create the board, but so far, only two of the five members have been appointed by the president. And neither of them has been confirmed by the Senate.
Hamilton said the rest of the board needs to be appointed and confirmed.
“The reason that’s important is that every argument since 9/11 has really been on the security side,” he said. “The security people come up with ideas that need to be implemented to strengthen their abilities to keep the nation more secure, and they can make a very powerful case for that. But we have given in the process a lot of powers of intrusion by these intelligence groups into the privacy and the lives of Americans. You very much need a robust board with a lot of power that can push back and make the argument in support of our core values, our civil liberties and privacy.”
Other unfinished business
Also among the unaddressed recommendations highlighted by the former commissioners:
A secure biometric screening system for the entry and exit of visa holders. The entry half of that equation was accomplished by the U.S.-VISIT program. The exit portion has not been.
Nationwide standards for identification documents, including driver’s licenses and birth certificates. The implementation of the REAL ID Act that would address that recommendation has been pushed back to 2013. Kean and Hamilton said the implementation should be accelerated.
Legislation to provide a clear legal framework for the indefinite detention of terrorist detainees. Commissioners say Congress and the president have been “derelict in their duty” on that score.
A nationwide system of interoperable radio systems for first responders.
Former commission member and former Illinois Gov. James Thompson said it’s foolish that many police and fire departments still can’t communicate with each other, and with state and federal partners in an emergency.
“Lives were lost on 9/11 because the police couldn’t talk to the firemen. That should have been lesson number one,” he said. “Then comes Katrina. Another demonstration that first responders couldn’t talk to each other to mitigate suffering and death. And now Irene. They still can’t talk to each other.”
Thompson said Congress should allocate a 10 megahertz-wide swath of communications spectrum to a nationwide, interoperable public safety communications system.
However, the proposal would be costly for state and local governments: It could cost up to $30 billion to construct a new nationwide radio system, so alternatively, the government could auction off the frequencies to spectrum-hungry wireless communications companies who would build the infrastructure. Under the terms of such an auction, public safety agencies would have priority use of the system when needed, Thompson said.