KWAME HOLMAN: Last year as one of its final official acts, the ten-member bipartisan 9/11 Commission issued 41 recommendations aimed at bolstering national security against the threat of terrorism.
Gathering today as a privately funded group, the former commissioners issued a report on progress made on those recommendations. Their bottom bottom-line conclusion was despite pressure on policymakers to prepare for another attack, homeland security still is not a government priority. Former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton.
LEE HAMILTON: Given the potential for catastrophic destruction, our current efforts fall far short of what we need to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: The commission's main concerns were inadequate communication among first responders at disaster sites, continuing problems with information sharing across government agencies, and flawed efforts to secure loose nuclear weapons abroad.
Commissioners also cited both the Congress and the president for failing to funnel sufficient homeland security money to those areas most at risk of attack by terrorists.
Former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean.
THOMAS KEAN: It is scandalous that we still allocate scarce homeland security dollars on the basis of pork barrel spending and not on risk.
KWAME HOLMAN: In response to that, White House counselor Dan Bartlett placed the blame on Congress.
DAN BARTLETT: They are funding things based on old models, pre-9/11 models. We think it's important that homeland security dollars go to where the threats are. And that's something that we'll be constantly pushing the Congress to change.
KWAME HOLMAN: The commissioner too pushed Congress to make changes, urging them to adopt some of their recommendations before members head home for the holidays.
JIM LEHRER: Reaction from key members of the House Homeland Security Committee: The chairman, Peter King, Republican of New York; and Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts. I talked to them a short while ago.
Congressman King, first in general terms, are the 9/11 Commission's criticisms correct in your opinion?
REP. PETER KING: I think some of them are valid. I think it's important to note though I believe country is much more secure now than it was on Sept. 11 or Sept. 12. A lot has been done. More has to be done. Some of the criticisms I fully agree with.
For instance, on the funding formula, I think that the Senate has been irresponsible in keeping the current formula so they're 100 percent right on that. That's such a clear line of demarcation. They give the Senate legislation and after they give the House legislation, which is bipartisan by the way, an "A," so that's a clear line.
And the more important issue, an overriding issue to me I think the main purpose their report serves is as a wake-up call to the country and to the Congress because my concern is every day we go past 9/11 members of Congress in both parties recede further into their minds the horror of the tragedy of that today.
So this is -- again -- I have specific agreements but on balance I think it's a good report. And most importantly of all it wakes up the American people and more importantly than that the Congress that this is an ongoing war against Islamic terrorism that's going to go on for decades to come.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Markey, in more specific terms, the commission said and then a White House spokesman, Dan Bartlett, said that the real blame for the shortcomings are really more to Congress than they are to the administration. Do you agree with that?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: No, I don't agree with that at all. The commission report is really a blistering, scalding indictment of the Bush administration. Without question, Congress deserves some blame as well, some significant blame. Again it's a Republican House and Senate so I think they are working in coordination with the Bush White House.
But the criticism of the lack of securing of nuclear materials overseas, the lack of funding for first responders, having a coordinated communications system for a terrorist list that can be checked at any airport in the United States, the list goes on and on. The criticisms go on and on. This is four years after 9/11. The Bush administration has given a blank check to fight a war in Iraq but it's nickel and diming homeland security. That's what the 9/11 Commission has just reported.
And I think that principally the blame lies at the top at the White House.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Congressman King?
REP. PETER KING: No I don't. I think it's wrong to make this a partisan issue. For instance, on the issue of homeland security funding some of the main opponents of the proper bill are leading Democrats in the Senate, but I'm not saying it's a partisan issue. Most of them are from smaller states, and I think it's more of a regional issue than it is partisan because some of the leading Democrats, Sen. Leahy, Sen. Rockefeller, for instance, Sen. Lieberman, they all oppose the funding formula changes which I think are absolutely essential.
On the issue of first responder funding, again, there's a billion dollars that hasn't even been spent by local governments. It's in the pipeline. And, again the president and the House strongly support changing the funding formula to make sure that it goes to the areas that do face the greatest threat so, listen, we can have disagreements here or there as to what should be done or not done.
I think it's wrong to make it a partisan issue because the president is absolutely committed to this as are many Democrats. I've never made this a partisan issue.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Partisanship aside, let's step back and take one issue that the commission highlighted and you've mentioned it, Congressman King, Congressman Markey, let's start with you on this, and this is the idea of how you allot homeland security funds, whether you do it based on the cities and the states that are more -- considered more vulnerable to terrorist attacks or whether you do it according to what the commission said, just routine pork barrel politics as before.
Why is that happening, Congressman?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, this is one area where I do agree that Congress is at fault and that it is bipartisan. The House is largely a body that represents larger states and the Senate smaller states. And ordinarily for transportation or health care or educational purposes, there's a tension between the two bodies. And we resolve it.
In homeland security, however, it's clear that every terrorist expert has listed where al-Qaida is most likely to attack. And those targets principally are in larger urban areas.
And yet senators that represent smaller states want to create a homeland security funding formula that distributes money to more rural parts of the country that does not represent where al-Qaida is most likely to attack.
So this tension between the House and the Senate is something that we have to resolve. The president should use the bully pulpit in this final two weeks of Congress to break the Gordian knot but it's something that really doesn't belong in partisan politics.
In the tension between the House and the Senate, senators from smaller states should accept the fact that New York, that Washington, that Boston, that LA, that the ports of the country and other locations are where al-Qaida says they want to hit.
JIM LEHRER: But Congressman King, nothing gets done. Why not, why can't this be resolved?
REP. PETER KING: Well, the House did pass a bill 409-10 last May with strong bipartisan support which did set up a threat-based funding formula. The Senate just basically wants to maintain the status quo.
Right now as part of the Patriot Act, we in the House did attach our bill as an amendment to the Patriot Act. And, quite frankly, we were only one vote away in the Conference Committee from getting that portion of the legislation enacted. Unfortunately, it appears to be bogged down. Let me agree with my friend, Ed Markey. The vote we're looking for right now is a Republican vote. And he's holding back even though he comes from a state which would benefit from this because he has some other reasons he's trying to protect in the Senate.
So this comes down to a regional issue. Again, I do hope the president does get more involved in this. Once we -- if we can't do it this month -- once we get into next January and February, I would hope the president will get actively engaged and we can make this a bipartisan effort where the leaders in both Houses will get with the president and we'll make sure this gets through because this is really a disaster waiting to happen.
JIM LEHRER: Another issue, Congressman King, a specific issue, is what's called the cargo gap on airliners, that everything else is checked except cargo that goes into the hold. Why can't that be fixed?
REP. PETER KING: I'm probably a little closer to Ed Markey on this than he might realize. I think much more has to be done. Now, again part of it is prohibitive cost in coming up with technology; also the time that would be taken would cause tremendous cost because many of these products or many of these items being shipped have to be done within a brief period of time.
Having said that, we do have a known shipper program, which is a step in the right direction. There are random checks that are carried out. But I think more should be done, but, again, it's not as big as the commission says it is but more can be done. I'm sure Ed will, you know, tell us exactly what has to be done.
JIM LEHRER: Will you, Congressman Markey?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: I will try. There are approximately six billion pounds of uninspected cargo which goes on passenger planes in the United States.
JIM LEHRER: Like what? What kind of cargo?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, you know, when any of your viewers go to an airport, they take off their shoes. They put their bag through and their computer through the screening. They check their bags. Those are screened as well.
As they're sitting in their seats assuming that everything on the plane has been inspected over will come a truck, a cargo truck which will unload cargo and place it right under neat the feet of the passengers on that plane -- six billion pounds of it.
JIM LEHRER: This is just routine air express? Somebody wants to ship something and they take it like any other kind of freight?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Someone wants to ship a Christmas present for this season, they just send it by cargo. It will go on the plane and almost every instance it won't be screened at all.
JIM LEHRER: Why not? Why won't it be screened?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, the airline industry doesn't want to do it. The cargo industry doesn't want to do it and believe it or not the Bush administration opposes having a mandatory screening requirement.
The reason it's so important is it took only one pound of explosives to bring down the Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. So six billion pounds going on U.N.-inspected -- even as people's bags are checked -- makes no sense whatsoever.
And they're saying they want to now no longer screen for scissors in the passenger compartment so they have a little more money to screen for bombs. But why would you take money away from scissors that could be used as weapons the same way that Mohammed Atta used the box cutter just to screen for a small percentage of bombs in cargo when we should be screening for all of it, scissors and bombs? It's a false choice and it's four years after 9/11.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman King, why can't this be solved? What's the problem here?
REP. PETER KING: Again, it is primarily a question of money.
JIM LEHRER: It is money. In other words it costs a lot of money to do this.
REP. PETER KING: Certainly if you find the technology it would be extremely expensive. Having said that I'm not saying it shouldn't be done. In fact, legislation we passed last year calls on TSA to dramatically increase the number of cargo that is screened.
And along those lines there's no cargo that's unscreened in that there are known shipping programs or manifests and inventory lists are given as to what's on board. I agree with Ed, it's not enough, but it's not anywhere near as bad as I think Ed is making it out to be but it is significant.
As far as the issue of the scissors I haven't made up my mind on that either. But I will point out that even the Washington Post, which is no friend of the Bush administration, did an editorial yesterday saying they think it was the right thing to do -- that since the cockpit doors are now secured that it is no longer a threat that it used to be and the money can be better spent elsewhere.
So, again, that is going where the risk is. I'm not definite -- I agree with that but again there is a real debate out there and even people like the Washington Post think it was the right thing to do.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Markey, another issue that you have raised and also that the commission raised and others have raised is the use of radio frequencies for first responders. Now, that's not something that costs money. Why can't that be done?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, you know, I tried back years ago to telescope the time frame it would take to shift the spectrum over. We're now --
JIM LEHRER: Shift the spectrum means to take a bunch of radio frequencies that are available and make them available by flipping some switches and making them available to first responders, meaning local police, local fire departments, et cetera, right?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Yes. In other words, when the next terrorist attack occurs, people don't call Washington D.C.; they call their local police and fire departments. The local police and fire departments have been complaining that they don't have adequate spectrum, that is, the ability to use radios, cell phones, whatever, to be able to communicate with each other. And they're missing the equipment as well. So what the Democrats have been trying to do is to provide an additional $5 billion worth of equipment --
JIM LEHRER: So it is expensive. It would cost some money.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: It would cost some money but again this is -- these local police and fire are heroes, but heroes need help. They've been crying out for the extra equipment and the extra spectrum. But thus far five years in, we still have yet to see the adequate resources dedicated to this local problem which, since planes were hijacked in Boston that flew into New York it's a common issue that Peter and I share because we know that these police and firemen will risk their lives but why have them endangered unnecessarily especially with the proper telecommunications equipment they can save more lives.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman King, why has that not been done?
REP. PETER KING: First of all, we have appropriated $2.3 billion in the last two years which has gone to local governments, in terms of interoperability of radios. And a lot of progress has been made. I know in New York City it's a situation that's pretty much under control.
As far as the spectrum we have passed legislation in the House which I believe it will be implemented by 2008 or 2009, which will make spectrum available. I wish that could be moved forward; I agree with Ed on that.
But, again, it's not as if nothing is being done -- over $2 billion in the last three years in grants to local police and fire departments for interoperability.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, just a yes or no. The wake-up call, do you think today's report by the 9/11 Commission is another wake-up call and will be heeded, Congressman King, in general terms?
REP. PETER KING: I certainly hope so. We have no alternative. This is life and death.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman Markey?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: The country had a heart attack on 9/11. The 9/11 Commission today said if we don't put in better prevention -- unless we change our habits -- we'll have that second heart attack, a second terrorist attack. Let's hope that the country listens.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
REP. PETER KING: Thank you.