WASHINGTON – More than four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies still are failing to share information while Congress battles over security funding, a panel that investigated the terrorist hijackings will conclude in a new report.
In interviews Friday, members of the former Sept. 11 commission said the government should receive a dismal grade for its lack of urgency in enacting strong security measures to prevent terror attacks.
The 10-member, bipartisan commission disbanded after issuing 41 recommendations to bolster the nation's security in July 2004. The members have reconstituted themselves, using private funds, as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project and will release a new report Monday assessing the extent their directives have been followed.
Overall, the government has performed "not very well," said former commission chairman Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey.
"Before 9-11, both the Clinton and Bush administrations said they had identified Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda as problems that have to be dealt with, and were working on it," Kean said. "But they just were not very high on their priority list. And again it seems that the safety of the American people is not very high on Washington's priority list."
A spokesman at the Homeland Security Department declined to comment until the report is issued Monday. Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, acknowledged that some areas continue to be vulnerable but have not been addressed due to disagreements with the Senate.
Congress established the commission in 2002 to investigate government missteps that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It found that the United States could not protect its citizens from the attacks because it underestimated Al Qaeda. Since June, the former commissioners have held hearings to examine what they described as the government's unfinished agenda to secure the country.
Among the main concerns, which former Democratic commissioner Timothy Roemer said would receive the "worst grades":
— The United States is not doing enough to ensure that foreign nations are upgrading security measures to stop proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical materials. Such materials could be used in weapons of mass destruction, and over 100 research reactors around the world have enough highly enriched uranium present to make a nuclear device.
"We've seen that Usama bin Laden likes to do spectacular things," said Roemer, a former Indiana congressman. "Is a dirty bomb next? ... We're not doing enough, and we're not doing it urgently enough."
— Police, firefighters, medics and other first responders still lack interconnected radio systems letting them communicate with each other during emergencies. Responders from different agencies at the World Trade Center were unable to coordinate rescues — or receive information that could have saved their own lives — on 9/11.
Congress last year approved spending nearly $1 billion on interoperable systems, but King said the matter is "a very difficult issue."
— Both the Bush administration and Congress have continued to distribute security funding to states without aiming most money at high-risk communities. The Homeland Security Department gave $2.5 billion in grants to states and 50 high-risk cities last year, but some rural states, like Wyoming, received more money per resident than terror targets like New York.
The House and Senate have been unable this year to agree on a funding formula that distributes money based solely on risk, threats and vulnerability. King said the Senate's proposal "is still living with a pork-barrel formula." But Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins said in statement that her bipartisan plan "provides a meaningful baseline of funds to each state so that the nation as a whole can achieve essential levels of preparedness."
Kean said information-sharing gaps among turf-conscious federal intelligence agencies continue to exist. He also chastised the Transportation Security Administration for failing to consolidate multiple databases of passenger information into a single "terror watch list" that would make it easier for airlines to screen for suspicious travelers.
Moreover, expanded governmental powers to seek out terror-related intelligence have not been adequately balanced by civil liberties protections or oversight, said former Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. He said President Bush was "tardy in naming a civil liberties protection board, whose funding is anemic and which has not yet been met to get underway."
A bright spot in the government's performance is the creation of a national intelligence director to help coordinate all government terror information, Roemer said.
"Generally, the grades range all the way from A to F," Kean said.
Still, "No parent would be happy with this report card," said former Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick.