9/11 panel cites unfinished business

Thursday - 9/1/2011, 6:37am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

It's been seven years since the 9/11 Commission finished its work and made 21 recommendations for improving the nation's posture against terrorism. A decade after the attacks, the panel's co-chairmen say the federal government has made a lot of progress, but several of their most important recommendations have gone unaddressed.

In a new report card, the former commission chairman and vice chairman, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton highlight nine major areas they say the government has yet to address, while acknowledging the nation is markedly safer today than in 2001.

"It's noticeable," Hamilton said. "Go back to 9/11. Look at Katrina, which was very poorly handled. Then the oil spill. Better handled. Then down to Irene. We're getting better at dealing with catastrophic events in this country."

But the former commissioners say some of their recommendations have languished in Congress. In some cases, they've been flat-out ignored, especially in cases where the recommendations dealt with the reform of Congress itself.

Several former commissioners, who spoke Wednesday at an event unveiling the report card at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said Congress' failure to consolidate its oversight ofthe Homeland Security Department is the most disappointing count on which the panel's recommendations have gone unheeded.

Kean, the former chairman and a former New Jersey governor, said most of the jurisdiction over DHS needs to be brought under the umbrella of the House and Senate homeland security committees.

"This would avoid what exists now, with almost 100 committees and subcommittees that the DHS secretary reports to," he said. "That's confusion. It's not oversight, it makes things dysfunctional. It means that the Homeland Security Department spends so much time preparing and testifying that they're not spending their time protecting us."

Policy confusion

The report card cites an example of the confused policymaking the former panelists are talking about: The Senate Commerce Committee is in charge of the Transportation Security Administration, and consequently, for legislation dealing with security rules for air cargo screening. But the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has jurisdiction over Customs and Border Protection and the rules for maritime cargo screening. The commissioners contend those two DHS components should be enforcing the same rules, and be overseen by the same lawmakers.

Former Washington Senator Slade Gorton, a former member of the intelligence committee and of the 9/11 commission, said it's counterproductive for lawmakers to keep protecting their individual subcommittee turf. He said Congress needs to recognize that its overall authority over DHS would actually increase if that authority were more centralized.

"It's that division of authority," he said. "Even on the intelligence committee, the people from the Pentagon and the CIA didn't really have to pay attention to us. The great advertisement for Congress to do this is, 'Look, you've forfeited all of the movement in this direction to the administration by splitting up your authority.' They should be motivated by the fact that if it were consolidated in two or three or four committees, the authority of Congress in what goes on would be greatly enhanced."

Another recommendation for Congressional reform that Congress has failed to enact surrounds the way lawmakers fund the activities of the intelligence community. U.S. spending on intelligence activities has doubled since 9/11, and Kean said that spending is not adequately supervised.

"The basic issue here is that the intelligence committees don't control the purse," he said. "Agencies listen to the congressional committees who do control the purse. Currently, the House and Senate appropriations committees fund the intelligence agencies through the Defense subcommittees in the DoD budget. At a minimum, separate intelligence subcommittees should be established."

The commission recommended that Congress create a bicameral intelligence committee to handle both the authorizing and appropriating functions for the intelligence community.

Commissioners say the slow process by which the government appoints and confirms presidential appointees also is a national security concern. Their initial report found vacancies in Senate-confirmed offices contributed to the failure to connect intelligence dots on 9/11.

There are some 3,000 positions in government that must be confirmed by the Senate. Gorton said the process remains badly broken.

"There are all kinds of really good people who just aren't going to fill out the application forms because they're so intrusive," he said. "If they do agree to do it, they go through six months or a year of hell before they're allowed to take the office. A bit more trust and an agreement by the Senate to deal with these nominations very, very quickly is a national security issue."