Congress' failure to act on the 9/11 Commission's recommendation to reform and sharply simplify the overlapping maze of 17 congressional committees claiming jurisdiction over homeland security is the biggest problem remaining since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the co-chairmen of the panel said Tuesday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that while the nation's defenses have improved, the Christmas bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner showed that a lot more needs to be done.
"Enduring fractured and overlapping committee jurisdiction on both sides of the Hill have left congressional oversight in an unsatisfactory state," Kean and Hamilton said in their joint statement.
That complaint was quickly embraced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins. "The one institution Congress is less willing to reform is Congress itself," Lieberman said. "There is no excuse for that, except turf protection."
Other weaknesses cited by Kean and Hamilton were the lack of analysis of the intelligence pointing to the alleged terrorist and ambiguities in the intelligence reform law over the director of national intelligence's absolute authority over the array of intelligence organizations. They attributed that latter flaw to the lack of strong leadership by President Obama.
Kean and Hamilton also shared the "outrage" expressed by the committee leaders and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that no one in the national intelligence leadership was consulted before the Justice Department decided to handle the alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as a criminal rather than as a prisoner of war who could have been interrogated for information on other terrorist plots.
"I was shocked," Kean said. "Decisions of this kind should never be made without consulting the top intelligence officials."
Hamilton said what bothered him the most was the fact that there was no clear policy in place on how to handle the suspect.
Asked how Obama was dealing with these issues, Hamilton said he did not think the president "has a firm grasp of intelligence. ... He has to step in harder" or the current lack of clarity on the DNI's authority over the intelligence community would get worse.
"We've always thought the success of the DNI depends on leadership of the president," Kean said.
Kean and Hamilton co-chair the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group.