9/11 Commission alumni blast failure to enact ‘no-brainers’

Former commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton is critical of progress. Former commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton is critical of progress. Kevin Wolf/AP
Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government still has not assured communications interoperability among first responders, or determined whether police or firefighters are the default authorities during a sudden disaster, according to reunited members of the 9/11 Commission who spoke on a panel Wednesday. "These ideas were no-brainers for the commission, and this is a great criticism of the U.S. government," said former commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a retired Democratic congressman from Indiana.

The event featuring seven of the original 10 commissioners marked the release of a new report card on "The Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations," published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, which consulted with outside specialists and Obama administration officials during its review.

The report identifies nine "major unfinished" recommendations, gives their status and identifies the player chiefly responsible (the Homeland Security Department, state and local governments, the Executive Office of the President, or Congress).

The past 10 years have made America safer and brought "progress in breaking down barriers to information sharing," said commission Chairman Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey. He cited a doubling of the intelligence community budget and the killing of Osama bin Laden as examples. "It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than before 9/11," he said.

The report highlights the government's post-9/11 successes on a single page, calling progress in the transformation of the intelligence community "striking" and characterizing the Transportation Security Administration's airline passenger screening as "greatly enhanced."

But longer analysis is devoted to the unmet goals, which deal with unity of command and effort, radio spectrum and interoperability, civil liberties and executive power, congressional reform, the director of national intelligence, transportation security, biometric entry-exit screening systems, standardized personal identification cards, and coalition standards for detention of terrorists.

Given the current budget crisis, the panelists agreed, prospects for implementing many of the changes are in doubt. Hamilton said that Congress' so-called "super committee will knock everything else off the calendar, and everything here in this report will be subordinated to that." He noted that after a boom in spending on intelligence, defense and security in the years immediately following the attacks, Washington for the first time is now "on the cusp of a debate" on the cost-effectiveness of such spending.

In a round-robin moderated by ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, the panelists addressed the unmet goals one-by-one.

The problem of achieving unity of command has been solved only in New York City, Kean said, where the police are clearly in charge. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman noted that the 9/11 commission's book "educated state and local officials in how to implement reforms in a decentralized way so that New York is not waiting for the federal government to act." He called New York the most secure city in the world, though, as former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson pointed out, it has resources other localities lack.

The solution to the problem of first-responder radio incompatibility, the panelists said, is stalled by a political fight in Congress over whether to allocate the D Block on the radio spectrum to the government, which could cost $50 billion, or to auction it to the private sector. Former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., came down firmly for auctioning, noting that Congress lacks the funds to reserve the D Block, and the federal government could still commandeer it during an emergency.

All expressed frustration with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which has had four directors in six years. "The agency doesn't control the purse, and it needs its own subcommittee" for appropriations, Kean said. It also should have authority over personnel so that the intelligence agencies "are all singing from the same hymn book," Gorton added. The commission originally envisioned an ODNI staff of about 300, Lehman said, noting that it's now at some 2,000. If the DNI had the proper authority, said former Indiana Democratic congressman and Ambassador Timothy Roemer, it would drive many of the solutions to problems such as radio interoperability.

The failure of the Obama administration to set up a civil liberties board is especially troublesome to Hamilton. In light of all the new "intrusive" surveillance powers Congress gave the executive branch after 9/11, the country needs a "robust and visible board" to push back, he said. Though legislation was enacted three years ago, Obama has nominated only two of five members, and none has been confirmed, he reported.

Hamilton expressed similar impatience with the Homeland Security Department's delays in exploiting biometrics technology to track suspected terrorists after they've entered the country, noting that two of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers moved around the United States undetected with expired visas and 18 had false identification documents. DHS has postponed until 2013 the final deadline for state compliance on standardized state driver's licenses, a step that should be accelerated, Hamilton said.

Airline passenger screening by TSA, despite the "major success" of its no-fly and automatic selectee lists, could be improved through greater focus at checkpoints on explosives on passengers and by expediting advanced baggage screening equipment. The failure of Congress to reduce the number of committees and subcommittees overseeing Homeland Security drew much criticism. "The agency spends too much time testifying and not protecting Americans," Kean said. "Officials come up on the Hill for a photo op with little follow-up," Roemer said. Veteran White House counsel Fred Fielding said Congress maintained the status quo and followed its budget process, which "keeps all the old habits." The campaign finance laws, Lehman added, encourage Congress to maintain many subcommittees so that younger members rise to become chairmen and raise money from lobbyists. Thompson said a key obstacle is that "we've lost powerful leaders in Congress who could make reform happen."

The question of how to detain suspected terrorists is a "dilly of a problem," Hamilton said. Despite Obama's executive orders early in his presidency, "we still haven't resolved the problem of reconciling the rule of law with detention of terrorists. We need a solution founded in fairness and due process to protect American people," he said. "The president and Congress are derelict in not pursuing a statute."

The panelists took note of the apparently modest progress made in the increasingly dangerous area of threats to cybersecurity. The government has been aware of the problem for a long time, Hamilton said, and the solution requires someone in in charge with access to the president, perhaps from the National Security Agency, and it will require interaction with the private sector.

In criticizing Washington's inertia, Kean blasted the tendency toward "governing by crisis," as in this year's threatened government shutdown and the debt ceiling drama. "Congress must focus on more than one problem at a time or it's not tackling the problems facing the country," he said.

Roemer emphasized a need for congressional leadership and pressure from the American people. "The unity of purpose we had is gone today," he said. "We need to get it back."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec