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In final report, 9-11 panel finds government efforts to protect U.S. from terrorists still lacking

WASHINGTON—Saying that another terrorist strike in America is inevitable, the panel that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings issued its final follow-up report Monday, concluding that the government has failed to put in place many measures needed to protect the nation from attack.

Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, said that homeland-security grants are handed out on the basis of pork-barrel politics and that there is still no unified list of terror suspects for use by air travel screeners.

Newark, N.J., for example, used homeland-security money to purchase air-conditioned garbage trucks. Columbus, Ohio, bought body armor for firehouse dogs.

Meanwhile, Kean added, big-city police and firefighters still do not have communications systems enabling them to share information efficiently during an emergency, a problem that hampered New York City public-safety workers on 9-11.

"Our leadership has been distracted," Kean said a news conference. "It is a scandal that police and firefighters cannot talk to one another reliably in big cities. It is a scandal that airline passengers are not screened against a terrorist watch list. It is scandalous that we still allocate homeland-security money on the basis of pork-barrel spending, not risk."

The White House took issue with the overall tone of the report Monday, saying that the Bush administration has acted on many fronts. It said the administration had cooperated with the commission from the beginning, providing unusually extensive access to executive branch documents and staff.

The White House also said it has implemented a number of important security improvements, including hardening cockpit doors in airliners, deploying air marshals on many commercial flights, trying to develop vaccines against biological weapons, and screening shipping containers for terrorist weapons.

"Protecting the American people at home is the president's highest priority," said Allen Abney, a White House spokesman. "The commission gave out 74 recommendations and this administration has acted on 70 of them."

The 10-member commission issued a 567-page report on July 22, 2004, detailing the origins of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization and the security, intelligence and emergency-response failures that figured into the attacks and their aftermath. Even though it officially disbanded last year, the panel has issued a series of follow-up reports since.

Issued in a report-card format, the critique released Monday graded the U.S. government response on foreign policy, intelligence gathering, border security and other issues. On 41 issues related to protecting the nation from a terrorist attack, the commission gave the Bush administration and Congress 12 B's and one A minus; the rest were C's and D's and F's, with one incomplete.

Of particular concern, said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the panel's vice chairman, were inadequate efforts to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

"It (weapons of mass destruction) represents the greatest threat against the American people," Hamilton said. "Given the potential for catastrophic destruction, current efforts fall far short."

Overall, according to Kean, the nation is better protected against attack than it was before 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial passenger jets and crashed them into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a field in central Pennsylvania, claiming nearly 3,000 lives.

But the panel said the nation still was behind in developing technologies to screen airline passengers and baggage. Congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence gathering remains weak, the panel said. And it contended that needed diplomatic initiatives such as cultural and educational exchanges with Muslim nations have yet to gain much traction.

Moreover, American policies for detaining terrorist suspects and allegations of torture have served to damage the U.S. effort to gain international cooperation for its efforts to combat terrorism, the panel said. Such efforts are essential, according to the panel, because terrorist organizations still are targeting the United States.

"We believe the terrorists will strike again; so does every responsible expert that we have talked to," Kean said.

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For more information about the report, go to http://www.9-11pdp.org/

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

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