9/11 Commission head presses Obama on anti-terrorism efforts

President Barack Obama did not devote enough attention to fighting terrorism last year because he was distracted by legislative battles over healthcare and climate change, the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission said Tuesday.

Thomas Kean, a former GOP governor of New Jersey who led the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States after Sept. 11, 2001, urged Obama to step in more quickly to resolve turf battles between intelligence agencies.

“In a way, this Christmas Day bomber did us a favor because everyone talking about healthcare, cap-and-trade … and I think everyone from the president on down got a little distracted and things got a little off track,” Kean said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

“Now I think we got a wakeup call,” he added.

Lee Hamilton, the 9/11 Commission’s former vice chairman, also criticized Obama for not putting more emphasis on fighting terrorist attacks. He said if Obama does not step in, tensions between the CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) could intensify.

“The intelligence community is relatively new to the president,” said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “My impression is his instincts are probably good but he is still kind of feeling his way. I do not think he has a firm grasp yet of the intelligence community … Therefore, I’m pretty strong in my thought that he has to step in pretty hard here or some of these tensions that have surfaced will be exacerbated.”

ODNI is charged with overseeing the entire U.S. intelligence community and was established to help facilitate information-sharing between various intelligence agencies. It has come under criticism since the botched Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the Homeland Security Committee’s ranking Republican, expressed concern Tuesday that the White House had undermined the power of ODNI by siding with the CIA in turf disputes. She specifically mentioned the disagreement between the two agencies over which agency’s intelligence officer would be considered the chief intelligence point-person in each country.

For decades, that person has been the CIA station chief in each country. The issue has been a hot potato, with no one in the White House wanting to offend either CIA Director Leon Panetta or Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones ultimately stepped in and sided with Panetta.

Kean and Hamilton repeatedly stressed the need for President Obama to back the ODNI and make clear it has the ultimate authority on intelligence matters.

“The success of the DNI is going to depend on the leadership of the president,” Kean said.

“The president does need to make it crystal-clear to everybody in the intelligence community that [the director of national intelligence] is in charge,” Hamilton said. “That’s a real challenge in how you exercise that leadership.”

After the Christmas Day incident, Obama called the security gaps inexcusable and ordered steps to immediately reform airport screening and intelligence-gathering.

The hearing was the second on the intelligence failures that had created an opening for the Christmas Day bomber. Last week, Blair testified that security officials in recent years felt political pressure to pull back from tighter air standards for traveling into the country.

Blair, along with Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, last week also said they were not consulted on whether suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should be treated as a civilian criminal and read his Miranda rights or questioned by the recently created High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HVDIG).

In opening comments Tuesday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called those revelations “troubling.” He noted that Osama bin Laden has since claimed credit for the attempted attack, while Abdulmutallab “enjoys the constitutional protections of a U.S. citizen” because the FBI decided to read him his Miranda Rights without first consulting Blair, Leiter or Napolitano.

Lieberman also expressed alarm that HVDIG is not operational, even though Obama announced its creation last summer.

Kean and Hamilton acknowledged that the one-man operations of recent terrorist attacks show that al Qaeda is having a tougher time organizing larger, more sophisticated attacks involving multiple people.

“The attacks in 2009 were solo performances. That indicates progress, at least in part,” said Hamilton. “It’s more difficult for al Qaeda to organize larger attacks. Their capabilities have been diminished.”

In a related development, Lieberman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and four other senators urged the administration to reverse its decision to try in civilian courts rather than military commissions terrorist suspects allegedly involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

They made the demand in a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder.

The other senators who signed the letter are: Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Earlier on Tuesday, McCain told the Homeland Security panel that he is working with Lieberman and Graham on legislation that would clarify U.S. policies when it comes to interrogating, holding and trying detainees.