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9 -11 Commission Issues Mixed "Report Card" on Terrorism

The independent U.S. commission investigating the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York City and Washington recently issued a "report card" that gives the U.S. government mixed grades on its ability to identify and respond to terrorism.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, also known as the “9 -11 Commission,” says U.S. officials have not done enough to protect against another terrorist attack on American soil. The commission, which officially ceased operations in July 2004, but continued as an unofficial group, recently put out a school-style “report card,” giving the federal government a number of low marks on security efforts ranging from airline passenger screening to inter-governmental agency information sharing.

Reviewing the Report Card "Grades"

James Carafano at The Heritage Foundation in Washington says the report card didn’t go into sufficient depth identifying security problems and setting forth solutions for preventing another terrorist attack.

“When you get a report card in school," he says "the teacher explains to you why you get the grade you get. There are no real criteria for how this thing [i.e., the report] was done. There’s no real analysis behind it. And so it really was a document designed to gain media attention than a serious assessment of the federal [government’s] priorities.”

Another analyst, Juliette Kayyem at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, disagrees with Mr. Carafano’s assertion that the document was superficial. She says the real problem is Congressional inaction.

“I think what the 9 -11 Commission has done with this report card is to remind America that there was an original war out there against al-Qaida and a war against a specific terrorist threat and what we might do to protect ourselves from it. I think that American politicians can’t sustain the kind of change the 9 -11 Commission said that we need.”

Ms. Kayyem is one of a large number of analysts critical of the reluctance of Congress to allocate Homeland Security funds primarily to areas such as major cities with a high risk of terrorism, rather than distribute money among all of the states as was done after the September 11th attacks.

Problems for "First Responders"

The Commission’s report card gave low grades for emergency communications and coordination – the ability of government agencies to talk to one another and make critical decisions based on accurate and up-to-date information. Ken Gude at the Center for American Progress in Washington says the hurricane that devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast in August, almost four years after the September 11th attacks, showed that this problem wasn’t resolved.

“Look at what happened with Katrina - the woeful response to a national emergency that was demonstrated by our national government," he says. "If those levees had been breached as a result of a terrorist attack as opposed to a hurricane, what kind of national conversation would we be having as it relates to the emergency response that is required from the federal government?”

Grading the New Intelligence Heirarchy

The 9 -11 report gave a good mark, a “B,” to the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte. But Gordon Adams, a Security Policy Studies analyst at Georgetown University in Washington, says he sees this new office and its structures as more of a burden than a solution.

“At best," he says, "I’d give the Director of National Intelligence maybe a “C” or possibly even a “D” because the one thing they haven’t avoided is layering the bureaucracy. We’ve got six senior officials over there working for John Negroponte, each of them now asserting an area of authority in the intelligence community and becoming just another stop in the reporting chain for people doing intelligence from the ground.”

Mr. Adams says he is concerned that the new intelligence structure may slow the flow of information, especially if there is another surprise attack.

Better International Cooperation

In the government reorganization done after the September 11th attacks, immigration and border control functions were placed under the new Department of Homeland Security, and international information sharing was stepped up. Harvard University’s Juliette Kayyem says she takes issue with the Commission’s findings in this area.

“They gave a “D” to international collaboration on border and document security – ‘are we working with our coalition partners to figure out who is coming in and out the door?’ I think there’s a lot being done to curb or at least understand who’s coming through our immigration [system] and borders with our allies, some of it public [and] some of it quite classified,” she says.

Harvard’s Kayyem says one example of international collaboration is aircraft passenger lists, which are used to identify people who may pose a security threat to the United States. Another is hunting down and stopping channels of terrorist financing, something the Commission gave a high mark for.

Divided Views on the Report as a "Way Forward"

Analysts are divided as to whether the 9 -11 Commission’s report and its grades on aspects of security provide ways to prevent future attacks. James Carafano at The Heritage Foundation says not on face, but perhaps, in a broader sense.

“It’s not a blueprint," he says. "But I do think the Commission played an incredibly valuable service to the nation telling Americans ‘We’re really not done yet building the kind of system that we need.’ It’s really up to the Congress and the rest of us to really join in the debate and argue about whether we really want to make this nation safer in the 21st century."

But Georgetown University’s Gordon Adams disagrees, saying this report is a valuable guide for bolstering U.S. security.

“I think it should be a way forward," he says. "I would urge the [Bush] administration to look at this and proceed with full speed and commitment of resources to fix the loopholes that aren’t fixed here. That’s the appropriate way to respond to this.”

Never again?

The 9 - 11 Commission’s report highlighted what government systems and policies failed on that day of terror more than four years ago. Since then, Washington has made substantial changes in security and intelligence gathering to prevent another September 11th from happening. While supporters of those changes say the absence of further attacks on the United States shows that these new policies are working, others say it’s impossible to be so assured.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.