Is Congress Failing to Do Its Job? Former Sen. Bob Kerrey Goes 'On the Record'

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This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," January 6, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: The House and the Senate, along with the president of the United States, have a duty to keep this country — that's us — safe and secure. So are they really doing that, or is Congress a bureaucratic mess and we are just lucky we haven't been hit again? Former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey was a member of the 9/11 commission. Moments ago, he went "On the Record."


VAN SUSTEREN: Sir, nice to see you.

FORMER SEN. BOB KERREY, D-NEB.: Nice to see you.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, there's been an awful lot of attention, for good reason, on the man who traveled from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit. There's been attention on how the U.S. responded, what we're doing, and on President Obama and how he's handled it. What about the United States Congress? Should we have the spotlight on them, as well?

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KERREY: I believe we should, not so much on the individual members, but on the structure, particularly the oversight of both intelligence agencies, as well as Homeland Security. As one of the primary recommendations the 9/11 commission made in 2004, Congress very quickly reformed the structure of the executive branch. And I think when John McCain offered the amendment, he got 12 or 13 votes to restructure the Congress. And we said unless and until that gets done, it's very difficult to imagine the Congress providing not just the kind of oversight but the kind of follow-up necessary to make certain that the executive branch not just is getting the job done but has a kind of full nonpartisan partner that it needs when you're dealing with very complicated and complex situations such as this.

VAN SUSTEREN: It seems to me that one of the most basic things was to get data to go into some sort of central place so it can be analyzed. I realize the complexity of it, but that was part of your recommendation, was it not?

KERREY: It was. That was also one of the recommendations that we made. But again, let me put it this way. I want to say two things about the 9/11 commission. The 9/11 commission was created because the people, in particular the victims' families didn't trust a report that had already been produced by the Congress. So it created this special entity that lasted for about 18 months because Congress wasn't doing its job. And we made that observation and we came back and said you have got to change the way thank you are doing your business.

Secondly, I would say the 9/11 Commission identified a number of things that we asked the Congress to follow-up on, most importantly the relationship this guy Awlaki and a number of 9/11 perpetrators, and no action happened neither on the executive or the legislative branch.

So again, we said unless and until Congress changes the authorities of these committees that have oversight — because remember, Greta, all the oversight for the intelligence committees occurs in a classified environment. There isn't any free or open press, there are foyer requests that allow alternative ways to make certain the executive branch is doing its job.

So there's a real weakness here. My own belief is likely Congress is going to do all it can to avoid, not because of personal unwillingness to do it, but it's the appropriation's committee power and armed service committee power, it is very difficult to change these jurisdictions.

I am very sympathetic. I was on the appropriations committee and the intelligence committee, and I'm sympathetic with the difficulty making the change. But I think you will get this kind of incident repeated in the future until Congress restructures itself.

VAN SUSTEREN: You used the word "weakness," but as I listen you my blood boils, because it is outrageous that when you deliver to the organization, to the body, Congress, specific recommendations, and they agree these are important recommendations. These are the things that are going to keep us safe in the air and on the ground from planes running into buildings or flying into buildings. And then the very people who have the oversight don't do it. This hasn't been implemented. It is terrifying to us to learn of it after the fact.

KERREY: And by the way, this is not a partisan issue. This is a jurisdiction issue of the Congress. This guy should not have gotten on the plane. He was clearly a security risk. His father even had warned us. He shouldn't have gotten on the plane. His visa should have been revoked and it wasn't revoked.

But there's other things that have not been done since the 9/11 commission made its recommendation. And as our chairman said, the language that explained what happened is eerily reminiscent — the system failed, the communication wasn't occurring, etc.

And there are a number of things that can be done that have nothing to do with the legislative branch — changing the way visas are issued, changing the way oversight occurs, changing a number of other things that will reduce and minimize the risk going forward.

But there's going to be a big weakness if you don't strengthen the two committees that have the responsibility. I think Homeland Security, Greta, still reports to 80 plus different oversight committees in the House and Senate. They simply don't have the kind of single, I would say, competent effort going on that they need.

And from my experience, I was eight years on the intelligence committee, I think the appointments should be made based upon competency, willingness to do the work. There should be no partisan considerations being given whatsoever.

And they need to be given the resources so they can hire the kind of competent staff that's necessary to do the work in this classified environment.

VAN SUSTEREN: They are not doing the work. And we citizens may ultimately pay the price some may pay it very dearly with their lives or their love ones. So how do we get members of the Congress to do their oversight jobs? Do we name names? This is not something that is insignificant. This isn't as I say renaming a post office. This truly is about our national security, about people's lives. And it's horrible to study to see what happened when we could have prevented it in the beginning. And the very people of oversight have lots of things they need to do and aren't doing it.

KERREY: I think as we said in our report, I think we said it is likely that the American people are simply going to have to put pressure on Congress to make this change, because, again it is not partisan. It's just the prerogatives of the chair and the ranking members. And I don't hold any personal animus at all. I've been in this situation. It is not easy if your armed services or appropriation to surrender some authority.

But these committees are too weak. They simply don't have the capacity to provide the kind of sustained oversight. And I'll say it again, I'm not sure that anybody on the intelligence committee has got time to do anything but that committee. Maybe they have time to do one additional.

But unless you are doing the work, both leaders Republican and Democrat of both the House and Senate need to make certain the individual appointed to those committees, once those committees have the authority necessary to do the job, and the language we used in the commission is very specific, you have to make sure they are doing the job. You can't just appoint people because they have asked to be on the committee.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there one single thing that we could do right now that would at least move this forward so much faster? Is there one person, one procedure, one — is there anything in the way so we can move this to the next step?

KERREY: This particular situation, you have to change the way visas are being done. And there are some counterintuitive things that probably need to be done. There are a lot of countries where issuing visas aren't a problem at all.

And one of the things that is also counterintuitive is we require an interview for every person making an application for a visa. And as a consequence the people working in the consular offices are interviewing everybody rather than identifying people that are particularly risky and giving they will longer interviews and making certain they are doing the kind of diligent interviews that are necessary when you are dealing with somebody that's a risk.

So I think there are a number of things that can be done in the short term, but I think in the long term — and it's not just putting us at risk. The question is, are we spending enough money? Some of these questions have nothing to do with short term risk and have everything to do with the kind of long term investments that very often are necessary when you're making very expensive investments in remote sensing devices and very difficult to develop in a hurry, investments in human resources, trying to develop the capabilities you will need not just today but 10 years from now.

VAN SUSTEREN: I guess the other thing that disturbs me the most is the conversation with you is that there is a body that does have oversight, who knows what the problem is, who has gotten the recommendation from you. And if we have another event, they are going to sit around, a successful event and not like this failed event, and they are going to say the system failed or the system broke or the system whatever. But the problem is this is their responsibility to implement what was recommended that are good ideas. And how do we get them to do that?

KERREY: I think we just have to keep raising it as an issue. We have to say — look, in the 9/11 Commission we gave two different models. There was the joint atomic oversight model that was used in the 1950s and the 1960s, my own favor to give the committees authorizing an appropriation capability to change the nature of the chairman and the ranking and the apportionment of the committee members.

I would also again make certain that they've got the resources necessary to hire the people there. And then both leaders have to make a commitment that partisan considerations, political considerations are not going to govern. So it's entirely national security, one committee where partisan politics cannot enter into it, and they have to have the capability and the willingness to do the work.

So we made very specific recommendations. And all we can do, Greta, is keep saying to the people that we know in Congress, when are you going to implement that portion of the recommendations?

Indeed, I feel if they don't implement it, they probably ought to repeal the changes they made in the executive branch because we made it more complicated and more difficult to do oversight, be. we create the DNI, we create the counterterrorism center, and our Homeland Security as well, we created the largest of the executive branch agencies if all, and it is more difficult to do oversight unless you change the nature of the Congressional committees.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, always nice to see you, sir. Thank you, sir.

KERREY: Thank you.

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