Open letter to members of Congress

On Thursday, Jan. 7, President Barack Obama announced the results of a review he had ordered following the nearly successful terrorist attack against the passengers of a Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit on Christmas Day last year. The results of the review detailed once again how our government failed to connect the dots in a way that would have prevented a known terrorist from boarding a plane for America and the steps he has ordered the executive branch to take to prevent attacks and to keep our country safe.

In his statement the president highlighted the importance of intelligence gathering, analysis and dissemination in fighting the war against these kinds of terrorist attacks. In fact in this war our intelligence efforts are considerably more important than they have been in any previous military challenge our nation has faced. 

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That is why the 9/11 Commission recommended strengthening the oversight committees Congress has created just for this purpose. At the moment the very disturbing truth is that House and Senate intelligence committees are actually weaker than other authorizing committees. There is an urgent need to change this, to make these committees the strongest oversight committees in the Congress. Unless and until this is done, congressional contributions to winning the war against future terrorist attacks will be less than what Americans need.

For those who doubt the importance the 9/11 Commission placed on congressional reform, here is the exact language from the report:

“Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important. So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need.”

Our report continued, “Tinkering with the existing structure is not sufficient. Either Congress should create a joint committee for intelligence, using the Joint Atomic Energy Committee as its model, or it should create House and Senate committees with combined authorizing and appropriations powers.”
Among the reforms we put forward:

* The budgets of the committee must be sufficiently large to compensate for the challenge of dealing with agencies whose budgets and actions are highly classified and to recruit the kinds of skilled, professional nonpartisan staff needed to get the job done.

* Leaders of both parties must commit to making assignments to this committee different from all others, with national security trumping all other considerations, including partisan politics and seniority.

* Expertise and a willingness to put the time on task — which should be considerably more than any other committee — should determine who is asked to serve.

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Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced legislation granting appropriations authority to the Senate Intelligence Committee that would correct the situation. Although I might have suggestions to strengthen the bill, I am also confident saying that their legislation un-amended would represent a tremendous improvement in the quality of oversight and the capability of Congress to join the executive branch in the effort of keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks. 

I urge the Democratic and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate to rally behind this legislation, to schedule hearings, and to put this on the priority list for 2010. It is an opportunity for Congress to do what I know every member wants to do: To put partisanship aside when the nation’s safety and security are at stake.

Kerrey served as a member of the 9/11 Commission and is a former Democratic senator from Nebraska.