9/11 commissioners urge action on 9 crucial issues

Posted: September 01, 2011

WASHINGTON - A decade after the attacks on the World Trade Center, there are still ways the United States can better protect Americans from terrorism, officials from the 9/11 commission said Wednesday.

The commission issued 41 recommendations in 2004, and while most have been adopted, nine others have gone unheeded and affect key areas that include airport security and communication among first responders.

Sitting alongside the nine other commissioners, vice chairman Lee Hamilton warned leaders not to "pat ourselves on the back too strongly."

"In my mind, there isn't any doubt that we are much better prepared than we were 10 years ago," he said. "Are we where we ought to be? No, I don't think we are."

The former Democratic congressman from Indiana chided leaders for their slow response on two recommendations that the committee saw as "no-brainers."

One called for developing so-called D Block radio frequencies, an unused portion of the airwave spectrum that first responders could use to communicate. The other urged a clearer chain of command when multiple agencies respond to the same emergency.

"Ten years after 9/11, we are not yet in the place in this country where the first responders can talk to one another," Hamilton said. ". . . We are not yet at the place where we know who's in charge at the site of a disaster."

The seven other recommendations highlighted Wednesday address a wide range of issues. Commission members want to see better tracking of people leaving the country, as well as national standards for birth certificates and driver's licenses.

They are also pushing for airport-screening techniques that more reliably pick up explosives, and urge the Department of Homeland Security to better address privacy and health concerns about full-body scans.

The commission is encouraging the government to strengthen the position of the national intelligence director, which was established after the initial 2004 report but has been filled four times in six years.

The group said that while Congress had made significant progress changing other parts of government, legislators needed to overhaul their own oversight of homeland security. The agency "responds to the inquiries of more than 100 committees and subcommittees," one report noted.

That's unacceptable, said commission chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey. "That's confusion, it's not oversight," he said.

"It means that the Homeland Security Department spends so much time preparing and testifying that they're not spending enough time protecting us, which is their prime job."

Kean, however, praised government officials for improving sharing of intelligence, which he said helped officials track and kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.

Still, the commissioners said the country continued to face a terrorist threat that is complicated by new fears of homegrown radicals and cyber-terrorists. That is why it is important to adopt the unfulfilled recommendations without delay, said commissioner Timothy Roemer, another former Indiana Democratic congressman, who later served as ambassador to India.

"If it takes us 10 years to deliberate and consider those pending recommendations," Roemer said, "how do we stay ahead of the terrorists?"

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