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US Congress Urged to Reorganize Anti-Terrorist Oversight


The United States has taken major steps to protect itself from terrorism in the three and one-half years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Policy makers and experts are urging the Bush administration and the Congress to do more.

In the wake of the 2001 attacks, Congress set up the Department of Homeland Security, which merged the functions of 22 different government agencies into one coordinated effort.

In addition, lawmakers also took the advice of the independent 9/11 Commission and established the post of National Intelligence Director and set up a counter-terrorism center to coordinate intelligence gathering and analysis.

Although they may seem like bureaucratic changes, 9/11 Commission Co-Chairman and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, says the reforms have been crucial in keeping the country safe.

"And we are not dealing here with just moving boxes around and a complicated structure in the Congress or a complicated structure in the executive branch,” he said. “We are dealing here with the safety and the security of the American people and how best to protect them. So we think there is an urgency here."

Some experts worry that the momentum for reform is slowing as the memory of the 9/11 attacks begins to fade. Ed Meese served as attorney general during the Reagan administration and now writes about homeland security challenges at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"9/11 changed a lot of things in this country,” he said. “Three and one-half years later I would say that most people have forgotten 9/11 in terms of the urgency and immediacy of doing something important."

Policy makers and security experts say their main concern at the moment is that Congress has not adequately reorganized itself to deal with the terrorist threat. They note that more than 80 congressional committees and subcommittees continue to have some form of oversight or review of aspects of homeland security.

Lee Hamilton says the time has come for Congress to simplify and strengthen its oversight capabilities to keep pace with the new government agencies created to keep the country safe.

"Now when you make powerful institutions in the executive branch, it is very important that you check and balance that power,” he explained. “And now, I think more than ever, as these powerful institutions have been created in the executive branch, we need in the Congress an effective counter-balance, if you will."

Analysts say partisan politics is one reason why Congress has been slow to embrace the reform proposals from the 9/11 Commission.

"The sad fact is that today's political environment is not conducive to the kind of behavior we would like to see in Congress," said Thomas Mann, who closely monitors U.S. politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Non-governmental groups also continue to pressure the administration and Congress to do more to improve homeland security. Among them are organizations representing victims' families from the 9/11 attacks.

Mary Fetchet lost her son Brad in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. She is the founding director of a group called Voices of September 11th.

"And I know my life is in jeopardy,” she said. “I know my family's life is in jeopardy today as we speak. So, I feel that it is almost a moral obligation in the memory of my son to be sure that his brother does not find himself in a similar circumstance."

Co-Chair of 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton says it is true that more reforms are needed. But he also says the changes that have occurred since September 11 are significant.

"Look, we have gone over three years without an attack here at home,” he said. “And that is no small accomplishment. Was that because we were so smart or lucky? I do not know, maybe both. But it is something and it is a significant achievement. We have made some progress here."

Former Attorney General Ed Meese also considers the reforms a strong start. But he predicts the full overhaul of the country's homeland security system could take another 10 years.

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