9/11 panel rips Congress on ISIS

Members of the 9/11 Commission are criticizing Congress for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), arguing lawmakers have not taken the threat seriously enough.

In interviews with The Hill, veterans of the blue-ribbon panel rebuked lawmakers for a generally lax approach toward oversight and said Congress fell down on the job by not implementing the recommendations they made 10 years ago.

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“Nobody can be very impressed by the congressional record here. You don’t go on a five-week vacation if you think the threat to the United States is imminent. Or, at least, I hope you don’t,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

Hamilton ripped Congress for failing to fulfill President Obama’s request for $500 million, made in late June, to train and equip moderate opposition forces in Syria. Obama said the money would help build up a rebel alternative to ISIS while helping to keep the conflict in Syria from spilling over into Iraq.

“Individuals can be right or be wrong in their assessment, but the institution of the Congress clearly has not stepped up to the plate,” Hamilton said. “They’ve been reactive to what the president has said. They’ve put forth nothing. They’ve done nothing.”

Terrorism has returned to the forefront of the political debate thanks to the rise of ISIS, a militant group that has beheaded two American journalists while taking over large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

With the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming on Thursday, Congress and the White House are debating what steps should be taken to stop ISIS and prevent the group from following in al Qaeda’s footsteps.

Tim Roemer, another member of the 9/11 Commission, said Congress should have identified ISIS as an emerging national security threat long before now.

“It is very difficult for them to point the finger at the administration, when they have to do oversight hearings and part of their job on the Homeland Security Committee and the Intelligence Committee is to be working to identify what the emerging and evolving threats are. Did they identify this threat a year ago of ISIS? What do their hearings show?” Roemer said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, the Republican vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said lawmakers should not let partisanship get in the way of a response to ISIS.

“We got to get back to that, if we’re going to respond particularly to something as deadly as ISIS. We’ve got to do it together. We can’t politicize it,” he told The Hill.

“I don’t think finger pointing by either side at this point is appropriate. What’s important is not the past, it’s the future,” he added.

Kean said policymakers and intelligence officials failed to anticipate the emergence of ISIS but declined to speculate about whether Obama was sufficiently warned.

“Certainly there was a failure somewhere. We didn’t anticipate in our government that ISIS would go across the border in Iraq and declare themselves a caliphate and threaten the world,” he said. “It seems to me we should have had some advanced warning given the vast intelligence apparatus we had.

“If we had warning, it certainly wasn’t made public,” he said.

The 9/11 Commission was formed in 2002 to investigate the causes and security lapses the led to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 Americans.    

In July, the commission published a progress report to mark the 10th anniversary of the original analysis, which was released in July 2004 and became a national best seller.

The new report zeroed in on Congress for failing to adopt proposals made a decade ago.

“Congressional reform is the most important unfulfilled recommendation of the 9/11 Commission,” the report stated.

The panel noted that 92 committees and subcommittees have some jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security.

“This Balkanized system of oversight detracts from the department’s mission and has made Americans less safe. It is long past time for Congress to oversee the department as a cohesive organization rather than a collection of disparate parts,” it stated.

The commissioners recommended that Homeland Security receive the same streamlined oversight as the Department of Defense and reform its oversight process when it adopts new rules at the beginning of next year.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenators push for possible FCC enforcement over Lifeline fraud Lacking White House plan, Senate focuses on infrastructure Governors-turned-senators meet to talk healthcare MORE (D-Del.) acknowledged in a floor speech at the time, “we know that there is still work to be done to fully implement some of the commission’s recommendations.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) held a hearing on the “rising terrorist threat” facing the United States and the unfulfilled recommendations.

“Congress needs to create clear jurisdictional lines to ensure that DHS receives strong, centralized oversight and can focus its efforts on its mission to protect the United States,” he said.

McCaul noted that in fiscal 2013, the department arranged more than 1,650 briefings with lawmakers or their staffs and provided 161 witnesses to testify at 105 hearings, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Roemer, who represented Indiana in the House for six terms as a Democrat, said congressional oversight of homeland security remains unwieldy.

“Have they reformed the massive oversight of homeland security which is 92 committees into a workable and justifiable 10 or 15 committees with oversight so we can give direction to the Homeland Security Department, which is new and fledgling, and give it vision and direction?” he said.

“They have not implemented one of the key 9/11 Commission recommendations of condensing and improving the oversight of homeland security,” he added.

Hamilton said he sees little chance of Congress taking action to counter ISIS before lawmakers leave town again to campaign for reelection.

“I can’t see that they have got anything on their program now. They’ve only got a few weeks here before they go on vacation again. Let’s see the Congress step up to the bar and take some responsibility,” he said.