A final report this past week by the independent bipartisan commission that investigated intelligence and other failures leading to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sharply criticized the U.S. government and Congress for failing to implement key recommendations to strengthen defenses against future terrorist attacks. The significance of the findings have not been lost on lawmakers looking toward next year's mid-term congressional elections.
When in 2004 the September 11th Commission ended its investigation into the terrorist attacks that killed some three-thousand people in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, it issued 41 recommendations.
As an insurance policy for the public, commission members vowed to observe how the government and Congress responded, holding a number of follow-up hearings, and this past week issued a final report card.
The results were not encouraging. In five key areas, the former commission members determined that Congress had fallen short, or completely ignored proposals for change aimed at helping to prevent a repeat of the attacks al-Qaida made against the United States.
Congress accomplished some things, including the most extensive reform of U.S. intelligence since 1947, with a new Director of National Intelligence, and a National Counter-terrorism Center.
There have been no terrorist attacks within the United States since 2001.
But in a final news conference, a grim former commission chairman Thomas Kean pointed to the commission's report card containing C, D and F grades and listed what he called shocking facts four years after September 11: "It is a scandal that police and fire fighters in large cities still can't talk to each other reliably, when they are hit with a major crisis. It is scandalous that airline passengers are still not screened against all names on a terrorist watch list. It is scandalous that we still allocate scarce homeland security dollars on the basis of pork barrel spending [politically advantageous], and not on risk," he said.
In addition to these shortcomings, Mr. Kean and others also faulted lawmakers for not making changes in the way Congress supervises U.S. intelligence operations.
Congress is finally moving to address one major recommendation. Next week, the House and Senate are expected to formally renew key provisions of the domestic anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act.
But problems remain on other issues, including efforts to enable police and others who would respond to a new terrorist attack to communicate on the same radio frequencies, and making sure that cities considered to be at high risk of attack receive first priority for federal dollars.
Some lawmakers are also concerned that the massive overhaul of U.S. intelligence, and efforts to improve information sharing and cooperation between agencies such as the CIA and FBI, have not brought the results that were expected.
Congresswoman Jane Harman believes John Negroponte, the new Director of National Intelligence needs to have more visibility, and do more to shake up the system. "Negroponte has to break some china and be a visible forceful leader in order to get all of these 15 intelligence agencies to work together more, to be tasked together and become one team," she said.
Republican Congressman Peter King, the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee calls the report card a wakeup call, saying Congress may have become less vigilant since September 11th 2001.
Appearing on C-SPAN television, he said it's clear more must be done but insists progress is being made. "The difference I would have with the September 11 Commission members is that things are much better than they were on September 11, 2001. More has to be done but we are going in that direction. You can't change things overnight when you're talking about so many billions and billions of dollars, so many millions and millions of employees, and we have an enemy that is everywhere and anywhere at the same time." he said.
Congressional politics has played a role in delaying some needed changes and slowed the process of implementing some Commission recommendations.
Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak asserts President Bush has not done enough to prod Republicans in Congress to meet all of the recommendations of the September 11 Commission. "We still don't have anything close to a strategy, to a commitment, to leadership on this issue from this administration," he said.
President Bush rejects suggestions he has not done enough on homeland security. The White House lists more than a dozen areas in which administration has acted, including intelligence reform, strengthening of transportation screening, and improving border security.
However, former congressman and commission member Tim Roemer had this message for Americans who read the report card. "That they listening out there and watching out there will start to write and call and email their representatives and senators and say Fs, and Ds and incompletes aren't the American ideal and the American standard of excellence. Not when it comes to protecting our people," he said.
In their final meeting and report to the nation, the former commissioners predicted that terrorists would only be encouraged by the pace of the response of Congress and government.
Lawmakers who depart Washington next week are certain to be hearing from their constituents, who go to the polls next year to vote in congressional elections.