LOOMING TOWERS

07.23.14

The 9/11 Commission Is Back With a New Warning for America

Ten years after their groundbreaking report, the 9/11 Commission report authors are back to warn us that we’re still very vulnerable.

The co-authors of the bestselling 9/11 Commission report are once again sounding the alarm about the nation’s readiness, warning of “counter terrorism fatigue and a waning sense of urgency” in combating a growing terrorist threat. While the core of al Qaeda has been significantly degraded, its affiliates are now in 16 countries, and the Commission’s reflections a decade after its original report is titled, “Today’s Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States.”

While the updated Commission report isn’t as direct as President Bush’s August 2001 classified briefing, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S.,” the cumulative effect of its findings, and the vulnerabilities it documents, should serve as much-needed wake-up calls for Congress and the White House.

“The world is an even more dangerous place these last few weeks and months,” said former Indiana congressman and Commission Co-Chair Lee Hamilton. He detailed how fighters traveling to Syria are re-directing battlefield skills they acquire “and returning to attack us,” with U.S. aviation the primary target of their bomb making. So-called lone wolves radicalized over the Internet and relentless cyber attacks rounded out the overview Hamilton presented Tuesday in an event sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“There can be no more failure of imagination,” said former New Jersey Governor and Commission co-chair Tom Kean. “We’ve got to get ahead of these guys, not behind them.”

The 9/11 Commission report blamed such a failure of imagination in grasping that terrorists would fly planes into buildings. With technology moving with the speed of a bullet, said former congressman Tim Roemer, a member of the commission, Washington can’t get bogged down in a congressional maze of committees. 

Of all its recommendations 10 years ago, the Commission said getting Congress to reform itself would be the hardest, and they were right.

Congress implemented most of the Commission’s recommendations for restructuring and reforming the intelligence community, but sidestepped the call to streamline its committee oversight process, a glaring failure according to everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s event. The 88 committees and subcommittees that existed a decade ago to oversee national security have increased to 92, and all agreed they are not particularly effective. Hamilton called Congress’ anti-terrorism efforts “dysfunctional,” emphasizing that senior members of Congress, not the Committee, had provided that description.

In contrast to all the backslapping about what a good job the 9/11 Commission had done in forging a unanimous report from 10 commissioners, half Republican, half Democrats, no one had a good word to say about Congress. “The Congress of the United States is failing us, and failing us badly,” declared former Republican Governor James Thompson, who served on the 9/11 Commission. He urged the two parties to quit “preening” and get down to the people’s business.

Republican Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, took the criticism well, agreeing that “policy-wise, it’s the right thing to do,” to overhaul the committee system.  But, he added, “Politically, it’s a problem. Jurisdiction is the holy grail.” Hamilton called the current structure “antiquated,” and said if there were a secret poll of all 535 Congressional lawmakers, most would agree it’s outdated. But with no member of Congress willing to give up turf, Hamilton said any restructuring would have to be accomplished by four people, the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate.

But, judging by the murmurs in the audience and the elevator talk afterwards, a jurisdictional overhaul of Congress is not going to happen any time soon.

Of all its recommendations 10 years ago, the Commission said getting Congress to reform itself would be the hardest, and they were right.

James Clapper, the fourth Director of National Intelligence, a position created in the aftermath of the 9/11 Commission Report, made a cameo appearance to declare that through a combination of things, including policy choices and budget cuts, “we are accepting more risk than three years ago or even one year ago. That sounds gloom and doom and foreboding, I acknowledge that.” Yet despite his own trepidations, the intelligence community is “heading down the path of more transparency.”

The day ended with a nostalgic look back at how a commission seemingly set up to fail produced a report that became a best seller. Created in an election year and evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, it could have ended in partisan deadlock. Congress saw the investigation as an intrusion on its turf; the White House didn’t want it, but the families of 9/11 victims kept the pressure on. Without them, and there were several in the audience, there would not have been a commission, both Kean and Hamilton agreed.

“Tom and I were second stringers,” Hamilton said, recalling that Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell were the first choices as co-chairs. They had to step aside because of conflicts of interest. Kean and Hamilton knew each other by reputation, but that was all, and they worked hard to build bipartisan consensus on everything. Kean recalled his first Meet the Press invitation, when he said he would appear only with Hamilton. “We don’t let guests choose guests,” he was told. He wouldn’t appear then. Two hours later, the show called to say they would both be welcomed.

The other 10 commissioners followed the two by two lead, with Republicans paired with Democrats in a Noah’s Ark of Public Policy. In writing the report, controversial adjectives were removed. The prose is unadorned and factual, and a surprisingly good read. “I think it will be a long, long time before you see another government report on the best seller list,” said Hamilton. “I think that’s one of our achievements.”

This latest report won’t get that kind of wide readership. But because Kean and Hamilton are such icons of a now lost Washington where people of good will set aside their partisan differences to serve the country, their words do carry weight, and they are listened to in the corridors of power.