"Myself, my hair is on fire," said former Sen. Gary Hart, borrowing a phrase recently popularized by former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke.
"I for one think it is only a matter of time before [an attack] happens again in a devastating way," former Sen. Warren Rudman said. The two spoke at a McGraw-Hill homeland security conference.
Hart, a Colorado Democrat, and Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire, oversaw a commission that warned of imminent terrorist attacks prior to Sept. 11, 2001. They said they tried unsuccessfully early in the administration to meet with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. They did meet with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but the ex-senators said that beyond being respectful and taking notes, little happened.
Hart urged the public and private sector attendees "not [to] fall into the Washington trap" of gauging the nation's preparation by the amount of money being spent. Hart also criticized the administration over a report that a shared database between the FBI and the Customs Service would not be operational until 2008. "That is unacceptable," he said. "We cannot wait."
Both senators said the federal government should act at home more like it is engaged in war. Hart said tax cuts should be curtailed and the private sector, which controls most of the nation's critical infrastructure, should be commanded to better secure assets under wartime conditions. "What bothers me is the rhetoric [of the administration] doesn't match the performance," he said.
Some of the Hart-Rudman report's recommendations included investing more in domestic security and in math and science education, which Hart said has not been done. They also urged the reorganization of national security, Congress and finding ways to attract the best people to government. Their recommendation to create a domestic security department initially was opposed by Bush.
Rudman criticized policy makers for being driven by events rather than foresight, and said Congress has ceded too much power to the White House. He said the government has poured money into air travel security because the attack used that means but that if the attack had come at a seaport, the spending would have been there instead.
He said the top priority should be to provide first responders basic equipment, and to allocate funding to localities based on threats, not population.
Rudman said the president's creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center helped unite the disparate intelligence bodies. He said he favors basic standards for chemical plants, nuclear facilities and cyber security.
Both senators said they back the establishment of House and Senate committees with permanent oversight of the new department, and said other chairmen would have to relinquish jurisdiction.
Rudman warned policy makers: "I think there will be hell to pay in this country politically if something happens."