U.S. Preparedness Receives Poor Grades from Members of 9/11 Commission

"Unsatisfactory," "insufficient," "minimal": Not the kind of marks you'd want to see on your child's report card, and certainly not the grades Americans expect from the government's progress on a majority of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission.

In what they call their final report, the 10 members of the former 9/11 Commission – five Republicans and five Democrats – now called the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, say that 4 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government deserves poor grades when it comes to bolstering security measures in this country.

"No parent would be happy with this report card," said former 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick, a Democrat.

In a joint statement, Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chair Lee H. Hamilton remarked that a year ago, President George W. Bush signed into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the most sweeping reform of the intelligence community since 1947. As a result, there is now a director of National Intelligence and a National Counterterrorism Center. However, they noted, these are structural changes. By themselves they cannot correct problems, but they afford the government a better opportunity to correct problems.

"As a result of these and other reforms, are we safe?" Kean and Hamilton asked. "We are safer – no terrorist attacks have occurred inside the United States since 9/11 – but we are not as safe as we need to be. We see some positive changes. But there is so much more to be done. There are far too many C's, D's and F's in the report card."

As the 9/11 Commission, the group released their first report in July 2004. In that report, they made 41 recommendations, including:

  • Targeting terrorist travel.
  • Addressing the problem of screening people with biometric identifiers across agencies and governments.
  • Completing a biometric entry-exit screening system.
  • Setting standards for the issuance of birth certificates and other sources of identification.
  • Improving checkpoint screening at airports and continue with development of "no fly" and "automatic selectee" lists.
  • Determining guidelines for gathering and sharing information in the new security systems.
  • Basing federal funding for emergency preparedness solely on risks and vulnerabilities, putting New York and Washington, D.C., at the top of the current list.
  • Making homeland security funding contingent on the adoption of an incident command system to strengthen teamwork in a crisis, including a regional approach.
  • Allocate more radio spectrum and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for private-sector emergency preparedness, since the private sector controls 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure.

In a report released Dec. 5, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project gave the Bush administration an "F" in allocating homeland security funds based on risk; a "C" for establishing a unified command system; a "D" for critical infrastructure risks and vulnerabilities assessment; an "F" for its efforts to improve airline passenger pre-screening; a "D" for checked bag and cargo screening; a "D" for international collaboration on borders and document security; a "C" for its efforts to create FBI national security workforce; and a "D" for incentives for information sharing among intelligence agencies.

Not all of the Bush administration efforts received poor grades. The development of homeland security committees within the federal government received a "B."

"The House and Senate have taken positive steps, but Secretary Chertoff and his team still report to too many bosses," commission members noted. "The House and Senate homeland security committees should have exclusive jurisdiction over all counterterrorism functions of the Department of Homeland Security."

Efforts to identify and prioritize terrorist sanctuaries received a "B" grade as well, with the commission noting: "Strategies have been articulated to address and eliminate terrorist sanctuaries, but they do not include a useful metric to gauge progress. There is little sign of long-term efforts in place to reduce the conditions that allow the formation of terrorist sanctuaries."

Kean and Hamilton called some of the failures to follow the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission "shocking," saying:

  • "It is scandalous that police and firefighters in large cities still cannot communicate reliably in a major crisis."
  • "It is scandalous that airline passengers are still not screened against all names on the terrorist watchlist."
  • "It is scandalous that we still allocate scarce homeland security dollars on the basis of pork-barrel spending, not risk."

The men confessed to being frustrated by the "lack of urgency about fixing these problems. Bin Ladin and al Qaeda believe it is their duty to kill as many Americans as possible. This very day they are plotting to do us harm. On 9/11, they killed nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens. Many of the steps we recommend would help prevent such a disaster from happening again. We should not need another wake-up call."

In response to the report, the White House released a fact sheet listing the administration's progress on the 9/11 Commission recommendations, saying it has taken action on 37 our of the 39 of the commission's recommendations that apply to the Executive Branch of the government and is "working with Congress to improve intelligence and security."

Saying that the White House "provided the 9/11 Commission with unprecedented access, including providing close to 1,000 interviews with administration officials and making available 2.3 million pages of documents for the commission's review: the administration listed these accomplishments as proof it had implemented suggestions made by the commission:

  • Appointing the director of National Intelligence.
  • Establishing the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
  • Establishing the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO).
  • Appointing a privacy and civil liberties oversight board.
  • Establishing the Terrorist Screening Center.
  • Transforming the FBI to focus on preventing terrorism.
  • Strengthening transportation security through screening and prevention.
  • Improving border screening and security through the US-VISIT Entry-Exit System.
  • Establishing the National Targeting Center (NTC) to screen all imported cargo.
  • Expanding shipping security through the Container Security Initiative (CSI).
  • Developing Project Bioshield to increase preparedness for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attack.
  • Cracking down on terrorist financing with international partners.
  • Increasing cooperation and reform among international partners at the front lines of the war on terror.

It's not enough, said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The commission's description of our state of preparedness, as dire as it may sound, may actually understate the problem," Schanzer said. "The 9/11 Commission is right on the mark in concluding that our country has lost its sense of urgency in defending against acts of terrorism and taking the steps necessary to reduce the national security threats posed by radical Islamic fundamentalism," said Schanzer. "Attacks abroad have demonstrated that al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations remain a potent threat, and Hurricane Katrina revealed how unprepared the nation is to deal with a catastrophic disaster – whether caused by nature or terrorism."

While noting that the commission has served a great public service by identifying reforms that must take place, Schanzer, the former Democratic staff director of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said its recommendations do not go far enough.

"They did not cover the full landscape of terrorist threat against the United States and in many respects were incomplete. For example, the commission did not discuss the threat of bioterrorism and the great many reforms and initiatives that must be undertaken to prepare for the intentional (or natural occurring) introduction of infectious disease," he said.

He also noted the commission placed to great an emphasis on defending against a 9/11-style attack instead of looking at the threat more generally. "We currently spend $72 on aviation security for every $1 spent on mass transportation, despite the fact that there have been far more terrorist incidents on railroads and buses in prior years and a 9/11-style attack is far less likely because cockpit doors have been hardened, federal air marshals are on far more flights and passengers will not allow a plane to be used as a weapon," said Schanzer.

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