We can, and must, do more to prevent terrorist attacks

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, profoundly transformed our nation. It is difficult to comprehend all the ways that our government, the private sector and our daily lives have changed. The most visible reminders of these changes are the enhanced screening protocols seen at airports and increased reports of suspicious activity in public places. Our view of the world has shifted. Drone strikes that kill terrorists are front-page news, and we now pay close attention to countries suspected of harboring terrorists.

The less notorious changes that have occurred within the federal government are even more dramatic. We have seen the largest reorganization of the intelligence community since 1947, its budget doubling since 2001. We have created a massive new institution — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — through the merger of 22 agencies into a more than $50 billion enterprise.

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The terrorist threat has changed as well. Today, unlike 2001, we must be concerned about Americans, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, playing prominent roles in al Qaeda’s global network. And in Minneapolis, Muslim-American youth are being recruited in Somali communities to fight for an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. 

We have seen also Americans recruited by Islamist extremists through Internet forums. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, was radicalized through Internet communications and reading extremist material available there. This self-radicalization is very difficult, if not impossible, for law enforcement to detect.

In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission made 41 recommendations for improving the nation’s security. The vast majority were endorsed by both presidential candidates at the time — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) — and almost every member of Congress. As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it is appropriate to reflect on the status of these recommendations. 

While substantial progress has been made in fulfilling many of the commission’s recommendations, there are several key ones that are unfinished. Progress can be seen in the transformation of the intelligence community and breaking down of barriers in information sharing. Information sharing within the federal government, among federal, state and local authorities and with allies, while not perfect, has considerably improved since the attacks nearly 10 years ago. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group recently released a report card detailing the unfinished recommendations. The report demonstrates that we are not as secure as we could or should be. Congress, the president, DHS, and state and local governments all have a continuing role to play. There are several recommendations where Congress has a significant responsibility. 

Top among these unfulfilled recommendations is providing first-responders with interoperable radio communications that allow them to talk to each other directly on demand. On 9/11, needless lives were lost due to incompatible and inadequate communications. Congress should pass legislation to allocate additional radio spectrum to improve radio interoperability for first-responders, so that public-safety agencies can begin the process of constructing a nationwide interoperable radio network. 

Unfortunately, congressional oversight of the government’s homeland security and intelligence functions remains as ineffectual as it was when the commission released its report seven years ago. While strengthening congressional oversight might be among the most difficult of the commission’s recommendations to implement, it is also among the most important. 

The establishment of the Director of National Intelligence to coordinate the activities of the intelligence community is a step in the right direction. Still, clarity about the director’s role is needed. This could be addressed in two ways: Congress could enact legislation to clarify the director’s authorities or the president could state explicitly that the director is the leader of the intelligence community.

We have done much since the attacks 10 years ago and are undoubtedly safer than we were that day, but there is more to do. Completing implementation of the commission’s recommendations will require the same kind of bipartisan cooperation that made the 9/11 Commission a success.

Kean, a Republican, chaired the 9/11 Commission. He now is now a co-chairman of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group.