9/11 commissioners criticize unresolved security threats

Biggest challenge is containing enriched uranium, commission leaders tell House subcommittee.

Of the many remaining threats to national security, the greatest is nuclear material still unsecured in Russia and other places outside the United States, the chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission told a House panel Tuesday.

Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton told the House Government Reform National Security Subcommittee that at least 500,000 persons could be killed if a terrorist set off a bomb made of radioactive material in New York.

Finding and securing radioactive material outside the United States is at the top of a list of commission recommendations that still have not been addressed, they said. Six months ago, the commission gave failing grades to efforts to counteract terrorism since the panel issued its findings last December.

Kean told Government Reform National Security Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Shays, R-Conn., that the most important challenge is containing enriched uranium wherever it is. He said the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program exists for that purpose, but added he was told it would take 14 or 15 years when it should be done in three years. The program was established in 1991 to deal with radioactive materials remaining in Russia and expanded in 2003 to all other countries.

"We've got to talk about this more. The threat is very real," Kean said. Hamilton agreed, saying that the United States should triple its efforts.

"The program is in place, but it has to be accelerated ... It needs a lot more money and a lot more people," Hamilton said.

Often popular with liberal members of Congress, the program has come under attack from some conservatives who say it amounts to a subsidy to Russia. Its appropriation for fiscal 2006 was $416 million and the president's request for fiscal 2007 is $372 million. Since many of the huge structures that hold the radioactive materials have been built, some proponents of the program insist that a bigger problem than more funds is meshing the bureaucracies of the United States and Russia.

Another goal of the hearing was to highlight problems that Shays said exist with the White House Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Shays complained the board is weak and does not have the independence and authority it needs, including subpoena power.

Kean and Hamilton agreed the board needs to be stronger but they said the board should have time to get underway before deciding on whether it needs subpoena powers.

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