Politics & Government

U.S. still unprepared for threats, 9-11 panel chiefs say

Flags at half-mast in front of the Capitol dome after 9/11
Flags at half-mast in front of the Capitol dome after 9/11 Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Major recommendations by a bipartisan commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks remain unfulfilled nearly 10 years after the attacks, the commission chairmen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and Republican former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean said the federal government had made "considerable progress" in implementing several of the 9/11 commission's recommendations, but that it had languished or failed to implement other key suggestions.

"The terrorist threat will be with us far into the future, demanding that we be ever vigilant," Hamilton told lawmakers. "We have done much, but there is much more to do."

They expressed concern that U.S. intelligence and crime-fighting agencies such as the FBI haven't evolved enough into efficient counterintelligence agencies. Hamilton said the FBI had made "significant but uneven" progress.

He pointed to the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, when Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly killed and wounded more than 30 people. A joint terrorism task force headed by the FBI discovered in late 2009 that Hasan had repeated contact with Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born cleric who encouraged Muslims to kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

"Information the FBI and the military had on the alleged shooter, before the tragedy, was analyzed in terms of the threat of terrorism he posed, but authorities failed to consider the counterintelligence implications it raised," Hamilton and Kean said in written testimony. "The failure of our government to prevent the Fort Hood tragedy also showed instances of poor communication among FBI field offices, and between field offices and relevant offices within FBI headquarters."

Hamilton and Kean added: "Restrictions on access to certain sensitive FBI databases hindered some officials on detail to the FBI from fully understanding the potential threat posed by the perpetrator. These problems need to be addressed."

They were also critical of the director of national intelligence, a commission-recommended position created in the aftermath of 9/11. The job has been hampered somewhat by having four DNIs in the six years the position has existed.

"Strengthening the DNI's position would, we believe, advance the unity of intelligence effort that is needed," Hamilton and Kean said. "Direct and repeated indication from the president that the DNI is the unequivocal leader of the intelligence community would also go far to strengthen his position and authority."

The former 9/11 Commission co-chairs said the federal government also must address the large-scale inability of first responders — police, firefighters, rescue workers — to communicate with one another during terrorist attacks or other disasters.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, New York City police and firefighters had trouble communicating with each other largely because agencies were working with different radio systems.

The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress pass legislation to increase assignment of radio spectrum specifically for public safety purposes.

Several lawmakers — including Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., as well as House Homeland Security Committee Chair Peter King, R-N.Y., and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. — introduced bills in the last Congress to create the public-safety radio spectrum.

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, also called for dedicating a portion of the spectrum, called the D Block, for safety use. But all those efforts have stalled amid the budget-cutting climate on Capitol Hill.

The White House has proposed raising the money for the public safety spectrum by auctioning off airwaves currently controlled by TV broadcasters. Administration officials estimate that such an auction would raise $27.8 billion over the next 10 years.

But it could require billions more to establish a network that reaches all areas of the country, especially rural communities.

"To date, this recommendation languishes. We find this unacceptable, because quite literally lives are at stake," Hamilton and Kean testified. "We must not approach these urgent matters at a leisurely pace. We don't know when the next attack or disaster will strike."

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, Kean and Hamilton said that federal, state and local governments were still struggling to determine exactly who or what agency would be in charge when a terrorist attack or devastating natural disaster hit.

"Our discussions with community leaders and first responders indicate that many metropolitan areas, with multiple agencies that would be involved in responding to a disaster, have not solved the problem of unified command structure," the former commission co-chairs said.


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