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Former US Senator: US Not Much Safer Than 6 Months Ago - 2002-04-05

A former U.S. senator who co-chaired a commission on national security says the United States is unprepared for future terrorist attacks. Former senator Gary Hart says the U.S. government should reorganize its homeland security functions under a single department.

Mr. Hart is a Democrat who co-chaired the bipartisan panel with former Republican Senator Warren Rudman. The commission was jointly created by the Clinton White House and the Republican-led Congress in 1998. Mr. Hart says the following year, it issued this assessment in the first of three reports.

"'The United States will become increasingly vulnerable to attacks by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. Americans will lose their lives, possibly in large numbers, on American soil,'" he said. "Two years later, almost to the day, that happened."

Thursday, Mr. Hart told a civic group called Town Hall Los Angeles that no one could have guessed terrorists would use commercial aircraft in their attacks. But he says the evidence suggested some type of attack was coming at some point.

Today, the former senator again makes that prediction. He warned, "The next time it may be smallpox, it may chemicals, it may be cyber-attacking the critical infrastructure of this country, transportation systems, air traffic control, financial systems, communications systems, any one of a number of energy systems - shutting them down by destroying the computer connections."

The former senator says the best defense is adequate preparation.

In a final report issued in January 2001, the seven Republicans and seven Democrats on the national security commission issued 50 recommendations. Among them was the suggestion that dozens of federal departments concerned with domestic security be reorganized under a single National Homeland Security Agency.

After the September 11 attacks, Congress quickly passed a series of bills to strengthen law enforcement and aviation safety, and President Bush created a homeland security office, naming former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as its director. But Democrats in Congress want a cabinet-level agency, which would have its own budget and be accountable to Congress. Mr. Hart noted that is what his commission envisioned.

"Why we urged an agency, was to bring those federal bureaus under one command authority," he said. "Six months after the attacks, those agencies still do not have a common database or a common communications system. And largely because of that, I don't think this country is much safer today than it was six months ago."

The White House is now evaluating a proposal to merge parts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service into a new agency, but Mr. Hart is calling for a more sweeping reorganization of federal departments and congressional committees. He notes that was the unanimous recommendation of both Democrats and Republicans on his commission.

Mr. Hart says many recommendations of the bipartisan panel must still be implemented, especially one calling for better "human intelligence" in the war on terrorism, that is, the use of spies.

"The first thing the intelligence community tells you is that's the hardest kind of intelligence to collect, and they're right," he said. "But on the other hand, if a 20-year-old Californian named John Walker Lindh can get inside the al-Qaida, why can't the CIA?"

The former senator does see some progress in the war on terrorism, as the United States and its allies disrupt the flow of funds that finance terrorist activities, "drying up the swamp." He says the United States should also reach out to those who disagree with its policies and who see the United States as unresponsive to their viewpoints.