9/11 Commission Alumni Warn of Unfinished Business Combatting Terrorism

One World Trade Center, center, rises above the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center in New York. One World Trade Center, center, rises above the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center in New York. Mark Lennihan/AP

The struggle against terrorism “has entered a new and dangerous phase,” former members of the 9/11 Commission said in report released Tuesday on the 10th anniversary of the panel’s original prescription for bolstering the government’s anti-terrorism policies.

“A decade later, we are struck by how dramatically the world has changed,” wrote the commission’s chairmen -- former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. Key threats from today’s global conflicts, they stressed, include intensified Muslim extremists and the rising risk of a cyber attack on major U.S. infrastructure.

“While the core al Qaeda group that struck the United States on 9/11 has been damaged in recent years, its affiliates and associated groups have dispersed throughout the greater Middle East,” the reconvened commission members told a day-long symposium sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Al Qaeda associates—some small, some worryingly large—now have a presence in more theaters of operation than they did half a decade ago, operating today in at least 16 countries.”

The original commission report, they noted, had specifically warned against permitting the terrorists “sanctuaries.”

FBI Director James Comey, they noted, has described the potential breeding ground for foreign fighters in Syria as, in several respects, “an order of magnitude worse” than the terrorist training ground in Afghanistan before 9/11. 

The constant threats of hacking in the private sector and government as well as cyberwarfare are also worrisome, the former commission leaders said. “The importance of the Internet to American life and to societies across the globe has expanded at a phenomenal rate,” they noted. “As the country becomes ever more dependent on digital services for the functioning of critical infrastructure, business, education, finances, communications and social connections, the Internet’s vulnerabilities are outpacing the nation’s ability to secure it.”

The governmentwide response to the 2001 attacks has achieved much that is positive, the commission members said. “There is a consensus among the senior officials with whom we spoke that information-sharing has improved significantly since 9/11,” the report said. “The tone is set at the top. A number of senior officials have described for us a regularly scheduled meeting on threats convened by the president and attended by the heads of agencies with responsibilities for counterterrorism. …The president’s active participation ensures that agencies collaborate (rather than compete) and that they are focused on delivering their best….This valuable practice should be carried over into future administrations.”

Of the commission’s original recommendations, the new report said, the most difficult to implement was always the call for “strengthening congressional oversight.” In 2004, there were 88 separate committees that place demands on the Homeland Security Department and other officials’ time. Rather than streamlining the process, Congress expanded the number of committees to 92, the report said. “Congress has proved deeply resistant to needed change,” it added, noting that without press or public access to classified information, Congress is the only effective oversight entity.

The revived commissioners took a swipe at the National Archives and Records Administration for making “distressingly little progress” on achieving transparency goals to help build public support by encouraging declassification of more executive branch records and documents.

Addressing the 16 agencies in the intelligence community, the report called for a single intelligence appropriations bill while also reiterating past fears of staff bloat at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

James Clapper, director of that office, expressed gratitude for the report and for his own agencies’ ongoing “voyage of intelligence integration.” He told the symposium that 60 percent of his workforce was hired after 9/11 and hence looks at “integration as a reality.”

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