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9/11 panel to embark on hearings to push its recommendations

WASHINGTON—With the timing of a summer movie sequel, the Sept. 11 commission is back, prodding the government to move faster to improve intelligence, protect borders, secure loose nuclear materials and spend more wisely on homeland security.

Starting on Monday, the commissioners will launch a series of eight forums highlighting the progress—or lack of it—on many of the 41 recommendations they made last summer on ways to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.

By the end of July, the commission expects to issue a report card on how government agencies and Congress are performing. Don't expect a lot of "A" grades; Congress may not even pass.

"There is an awful lot of unfinished business, and we're afraid some complacency has set in" since there've been no attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, said Timothy Roemer, a commission member and former Indiana congressman.

The commission dissolved last summer, but with seven foundations contributing a total of $1 million, the commissioners and a small staff have continued to play a role on a wide range of issues.

Last month, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, the former New Jersey governor and Indiana congressman who lead the commission, praised the House of Representatives for passing a funding bill for first responders that's based on risks and vulnerabilities, not pork-barrel considerations. They urged the Senate to do the same.

"The House bill is a good one, but the Senate has been reluctant to change the funding," Hamilton said in a recent interview.

The Senate has insisted on a funding formula that guarantees money to every state, but Roemer said: "Look at the record. Terrorists have targeted New York over and over again, not Wyoming."

James Carafano, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the funding issue "is one where the commission can really pressure Congress to do the right thing."

Unlike previous panels and investigations, the Sept. 11 commission, as it became known, had a major impact on the Bush administration and on the public debate over how to deal with terrorism. Its 567-page report, with a crisp, page-turning narrative on how the 2001 attacks unfolded, became a best seller.

The five Republicans and five Democrats on the commission acted with bipartisan unanimity and had the active support of relatives of Sept. 11 victims.

That allowed the commission to lobby the administration and Congress to reorganize the nation's intelligence system and appoint a new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, to coordinate a sprawling bureaucracy.

"The commission did a terrific job in focusing public attention and pursuing its goals," Carafano said.

The commission has a few critics. Richard Posner, a federal appellate judge and prolific writer, faulted the commission for stressing "a premature, ill-considered commitment" to bureaucratic reorganization as the way to forestall future attacks.

In his new book "Preventing Surprise Attacks," Posner said the commission's drive for unanimity meant it shied away from more controversial proposals, such as taking domestic intelligence gathering away from the FBI.

The commission's first hearing on Monday will focus on FBI and CIA changes. Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, and Dick Thornburgh, attorney general in two Republican administrations, will participate.

Several commissioners said it's too early to assess how Negroponte's reorganization is working, but they're stressing security measures they want Congress and the executive branch to focus on now.

One priority, they say, should be additional funding and authority for the program to secure loose nuclear materials around the world, especially in the former Soviet Union, and to prevent smugglers and terrorists from getting it.

"Congress isn't taking the steps needed to protect us from what Osama bin Laden promised—a `Hiroshima-type event' on U.S. soil," said Roemer, who'll moderate a June 27 forum on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

"We believe this is the most urgent threat to the American people," Hamilton said of the loose nukes problem on "Meet the Press" May 29.

Congress and federal agencies have made some progress on border security, with passage of the Real ID act, which mandates tougher requirements for driver's licenses.

By the end of June, visitors from 27 nations, mainly in Europe, will need machine-readable passports, which should make security checks more reliable.

But problems still plague efforts to integrate various watch lists, and it's difficult to remove people who are mistakenly on terror watch lists, commissioners warned.

And so far, Congress has been the obstacle to one of the commission's simplest and cheapest recommendations—that "dysfunctional" congressional oversight be consolidated and reorganized in a more effective way.

"Right now, that doesn't seem to be going anywhere," Roemer said.

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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