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Ten Years After 9/11, How Safe Is the U.S. Against Terror Attacks?

August 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Ten years after Sept. 11, how safe is the United States from more terror attacks? Jeffrey Brown discusses how much national security has -- and has not -- improved over the past decade with 9/11 Commission Chairmen Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Ten years later, how safe is the U.S. from terror attacks?

Members of one of the key investigating groups weigh in.

Three years after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the 9/11 Commission issued a report that looked back with a dramatic recounting of events leading up to that tragic day and projected forward with recommendations to prevent future attacks.

THOMAS KEAN, former co-chairman of 9/11 Commission: Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible, and even probable. We do not have the luxury of time. We must prepare and we must act.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 500-page report instantly became a bestseller. It included 41 recommendations for federal, state and local governments and agencies, among them: the creation of a director of national intelligence to coordinate intelligence gathering, as well as foreign and domestic operations; consolidated congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence; and streamlined communication between first-responders in different states and federal agencies.

Today, a group that working under the auspices of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and including many of the original 9/11 Commission members, presented a report card on national preparedness 10 years after the attacks.

Overall, the group found, “Our country is undoubtedly safer and more secure than it was a decade ago,” but, “we fail to achieve the security we could or should have.”

In all, the report said that government at all levels failed to meet nine of the original 9/11 Commission’s 41 recommendations.

The two chairmen of the 9/11 Commission were part of the group that presented today’s 10th anniversary report card, and they’re with us now, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton.

Welcome to both of you.

First, the good news. You cite many improvements that — since the commission report that you say has made the country safer.

Governor, what’s the most important change that you have seen that has made us safer, do you think?

TOM KEAN: Oh, probably that the intelligence community is talking to each other more.

JEFFREY BROWN: As simple as that?

TOM KEAN: As simple as that. We had a lot of terrorists on 9/11 who might have been caught very easily, except the FBI didn’t share information with the CIA and vice versa.

And we have 17 intelligence agencies. And they were all stovepipes. So they talked to each other. They didn’t talk to — they didn’t talk to each other, rather. They just talked within the agencies. Now the mechanism is now set up under our legislation that almost forces them to talk to each other. And that is a great improvement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound right to you, like, as the key change? Do you see others?

LEE HAMILTON, former co-chairman of 9/11 Commission: No doubt about it.

The principle recommendation of the commission was that we had to do a much better job of sharing information. We have made lot of progress there. And information today is shared much, much better than it was prior to 9/11, not yet where it ought to be, not yet seamless, but better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let’s talk about that, because this Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created. But you say in this report today, “It is still not clear that the DNI is the driving force for intelligence community integration that we had envisioned.”

You want to start with that? What problem do you see remaining?

LEE HAMILTON: It’s the problem of the authority of the director of national intelligence.

He’s dealing with a lot of agencies. He’s dealing with some very powerful players, CIA director, secretary of defense and others. And he needs authority on budget and on personnel and across the intelligence community. Now, that’s very hard to do unless he has statutory authority, which is a little ambiguous today, and the backing of the president. So, I think it’s a question of the DNI’s authority.

Having said that, in the end, it comes down to personalities. And the DNI has to be very diplomatic, because he is dealing with big players, who, if they don’t like his decision, will go right to the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s interesting. You’re both saying that there is — they’re talking to each other more…

LEE HAMILTON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … but this new position isn’t quite as coordinated or authoritative as you hoped.

TOM KEAN: Well, they weakened the legislation that we recommended a bit when they passed it in Congress. So it’s a little unclear.

And we said at the time — Lee in particular said, you know, this is all going to depend on the president, because if the president gives the guy the authority, then it’s going to work. But there have been four DNIs in six years. We hoped that it would be a long-term person with the faith of the president who would really coordinate the intelligence operation. And it hasn’t quite been that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, another area — and, of course, one of the places where average Americans feel the changes most is at the airport, right, and with airport security.

Today’s report, here’s another quote. It says, “The aviation screening system still falls short in critical ways with respect to detection.”

What problem do you see there?

TOM KEAN: Well, the idea is to detect bombs.

Even with what we all go through, it doesn’t detect the latest kind of bombs that terrorists could build. So the technology of bomb-making has gotten ahead of the technology of detection. So, what we have really got to do is bring the detection up to date, so that we make sure that if somebody goes through, we’re going to go through all these terrible processes, that at least they’re detecting the bombs that might be there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I mean, because of course a lot of people feel like there’s already enough invasiveness and possible invasion of privacy with these new machines.

But you’re suggesting enhanced machine — enhanced technology?

LEE HAMILTON: Yes, indeed. This is not a new problem. This is a problem that existed prior to 9/11.

We put a lot of money into it. The private sector has worked hard on it. But we are not yet at the point where you can detect these explosives that can be hidden on the body or in the body. And we must get to that point.

The detection we have today is good. It detects a lot of things, but it doesn’t detect these explosives. And until we get to that point, there’s a risk. And it can be a high risk, because the terrorists are very good at identifying our vulnerabilities.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the loudest lines here in today’s report that jumped out at me was about emergency response. It’s unity of command.

You refer — and the line is, “A decade after 9/11, the nation is not yet prepared for a truly catastrophic disaster.”

This goes to first-responders communicating with each other. Why hasn’t that gotten better?

TOM KEAN: This — I think, if there’s something Lee and I would agree was outrageous, this is it. I mean, we thought this was fairly easy, the fact that people at the site of a disaster should be able to talk to one another.

We know it cost lives on 9/11. I mean, the policemen couldn’t talk to the firemen, and people died because of that. In Katrina, people in boats weren’t able to talk to people in rescue helicopters, and people died because of it.

And now, 10 years later, we still haven’t done it, the so-called D-block, which is what they need, the spectrums, so that first-responders can talk to each other, not just in terrorist attacks, but in any disaster.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, because you cite Katrina, you cite the Gulf oil spill.

TOM KEAN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your — do you have an explanation for why that hasn’t gotten better?

LEE HAMILTON: Well, the radio spectrum is very valuable property, very valuable property.

And so whenever you’re allocating part of that spectrum, you’re talking about big dollars. What we’re recommending is a part of that spectrum be given to public officials. And, of course, there are a lot of people who see that as an intrusion on their property rights or something they should have rights to.

The debate really now is, do you allocate part of this spectrum directly to the first-responders? That’s what we favor. Or do you allocate it to the private sector and then let them work it out? This is the debate within the Congress now.

The important thing from our standpoint is that the debate be resolved. Let’s get a decision here, because this is an absolute no-brainer that these responders have to be able to talk with one another.

And it is a source, as Tom has suggested, of enormous frustration to us that we have — we aren’t there yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, there’s a lot more here that we can walk through, but when you cite these failures to implement things that to you seem very obvious — you both spent a lot of time in politics.

Now, when you look at it, is it a failure of will? Is it a failure of money? Is it a failure of politics, a failure to understand the gravity of the risk? What do you think?

TOM KEAN: Well, depending on the recommendation, I will give you maybe a different answer.

In some cases, it may be money. Other cases, it’s politics. We’re calling desperately for congressional reform because they’re so dysfunctional in their oversight of the intelligence operation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dysfunctional is a word that is being used a lot here in Washington these days.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM KEAN: Well, dysfunctional came from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It didn’t come from us. And that can’t be, because they’re the only people — intelligence is secret. You can’t find out about it. If they’re not doing it, nobody’s doing it. So…

LEE HAMILTON: Our argument — look, our argument is that this is so important to the lives of people if you have a disaster, that we have a responsibility to get it right now.

And there are a lot of other interests that interfere here that we have referred to. You have to put those aside. People are going to die unless we get these problems of unity of command and interoperability of communications worked out. And we are not there yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you surprised, 10 years later, that there has not been another major successful attack on the U.S.?

LEE HAMILTON: I think so.

I think it’s inevitable that they will succeed at some point. The technology is clearly available to them, no question about their intent. They have made a number of efforts in the last three or four years. We have had this development of the lone wolf, the self-radicalization problem in the country.

We would be extremely fortunate if we were able to get by another 10 years without an attack. Everybody I know in the national security community thinks another attack will eventually succeed. Then the problem becomes our resilience, our ability to bounce back, and not let us — let it take over our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Governor, do you fear, therefore, that there’s been a lack of urgency or it has grown over the last 10 years?

TOM KEAN: I think the further you get from New York City, the less the urgency is — that’s my experience — perhaps because they didn’t experience it the same way.

But this — no matter what else we do — I recognize we’re all worried about budgets, health care, unemployment and we should be. But this is something we can’t ignore. The first responsibility of government is to defend its citizens. If we’re not doing that properly, we can’t do anything well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, bottom line here, safer, but still much more to do?

TOM KEAN: That is correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gov. Tom Kean, Rep. Lee Hamilton, thank you both very much.

TOM KEAN: Thank you.

LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.