Whatever happened to the 9/11 Commission Report?
On July 22, 2004, the independent 9/11 commission released its 428-page study of the al Qaeda terrorist attack on America. The report ‘ which became an immediate best-seller ‘ included 41 unanimous recommendations designed to make the United States safer and more secure from terrorism.
The commission, an independent and bipartisan panel of 10 distinguished American leaders, conducted no-nonsense hearings in several cities with a wide range of national security experts and other key figures, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The commission directed exhaustive staff research on how 18 al Qaeda terrorists were able to attack the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with commercial airliners and bring the most powerful country in the world to a standstill.
The commission was led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Keane and former Ninth District Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
A few key recommendations were adopted fairly quickly. For example, Hamilton said from Washington last week, the Congress adopted the idea of restructuring the entire intelligence community of the federal government ‘ the first major change since World War II.
Other recommendations have not been adopted yet but that could happen in the next few months, Hamilton said.
Four in particular need to be passed into law, Hamilton said. They are:
One: Reserving a reliable part of the ‘radio spectrum’ so first responders can talk to one another during a disaster, whether it’s a terrorist strike or a hurricane.
‘One of the lessons of 9/11 was that better communications could save lives,’ Hamilton said. ‘The New York City police and the New York firefighters could not communicate with each other on 9/11. It is a scandal that, four years later, we have not set aside enough of the radio spectrum to ensure that police, firefighters and emergency medical people can communicate reliably during a major attack. They were not able to do it after Hurricane Katrina.’
Congress now has a ‘golden opportunity’ to act, he said. ‘What they have to do is turn over broadcast spectrum frequencies to first responders at the earliest possible date. It should have been done long ago.’
One reason why this hasn’t happened already, Hamilton said, is because the radio spectrum is owned by broadcast companies, and it’s ‘enormously valuable property,’ the kind that media giants are not likely to give up easily.
‘This is a complicated matter, but it’s also a no-brainer in terms of emergency response,’ the former House Foreign Affairs chairman said. ‘You simply have to be able to talk to one another at the scene of a disaster site.’
A pending bill doesn’t call for turnover until 2009, which is ‘much too late, in our view,’ Hamilton said.
Two: ‘Allocate Homeland Security grants strictly on the basis of risk and vulnerability, not politics, so that the money flows, from the best information you have, to where the terrorists will strike next.’
Hamilton said ‘a very good bill’ has been passed overwhelmingly with good, strong bipartisan support in the House, and the Senate has passed a ‘less desirable’ bill. Hamilton said the commission favors the House bill and hopes it will be passed into law and signed by President Bush this year.
Three: Federal law now requires the Dept. of Homeland Security to complete a couple of reports recommended by the commission. One concerns a national strategy for transportation security, and the second assesses the vulnerability of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
The first report should have been filed April 1, and the one on infrastructure vulnerability was due June 15. Neither has been filed. The secretary of Homeland Security, Judge Michael Cherthof, is responsible for this, but he also answers to the President, Hamilton said.
‘You can’t prepare for a terrorist attack or a risk unless you have analyzed the risk and the vulnerabilities and assigned priorities,’ Hamilton said.
‘You must put these plans into place. I don’t suggest that creating these plans is easy. It’s not. It’s very hard. You have to set priorities and make choices. You simply can’t protect every piece of infrastructure in the country, so you have to make choices and establish priorities, and you do that by putting together a plan or a strategy. You have to protect some critical infrastructure and not others.
‘Political leaders don’t like to make judgment calls about priorities because they can be wrong. But we elect our leaders to make these decisions, and they owe us the best analysis and they owe us the best judgments as to where we deploy our resources and secure our homeland, and they have not done it.’
Cherthof hasn’t explained, even at his confirmation hearings, why his reports are very late.
Four: ‘We must adopt a command system at the point of the disaster. In both 9/11 and Katrina, you had a disarray in command at the point of impact. No one agency was clearly identified as being in charge. And when you have confusion, that costs lives,’ Hamilton said.
‘You have literally hundreds of decisions that have to be made very quickly regarding personnel, where to put them, what kind of equipment to have, what do you do first, what do you do second, search and rescue operations, and so on.
‘You have to have a command structure that is unified, effective and efficient. Even when you have that, it’s still very chaotic, and when you don’t have it, it’s even more so.’
During a major catastrophe, federal, state and local officials and many private citizens all find themselves involved in emergency response. ‘Somebody has to be in charge,’ Hamilton said. ‘When you don’t have somebody in charge, you have chaos.
‘A lot of communities have wrestled with this, and a lot have not. It’s hard to find out where the country is as a whole on this. We feel on the commission that progress has been too slow. Terrorists are not going to accommodate some kind of bureaucratic timetable. The urgency of action should match the urgency of the threat.
‘This is where the concentration of effort ought to be done ‘ and can be done ‘ in the next few months.’
Hamilton said he thinks these recommendations are all achievable.