9/11 Panel Gives U.S. Failing Grades

When the 9/11 commission officially ended, its members decided there was more work to do. They stayed together for one more year to see what happened to their recommendations to keep America safe. Many of the grades are 'D's and 'F's. Co-Chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton share their final report card.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The former members of the 9-11 Commission conclude that another terrorist attack on the United States is inevitable, and that more than four years after 9/11, we're not as ready as we should be, not as ready as we could be. After publishing their best-selling report a year and a half ago, the members of the commission stayed together to monitor progress on their recommended reforms. Today in Washington, they released their final report card on 41 specific reforms. The grades include just one A-minus and five F's. For example, the commissioners say the government failed to establish a radio communications system for first responders. `As a consequence,' they say, `we saw the same kind of confusion in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that we saw in New York on 9/11.'

The panelists also stressed the need to take the politics out of deciding which cities and states get the biggest share of Homeland Security funds. In just a moment, we'll speak with co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton about their final report card. We'll also be taking your calls.

Later in the program, a new feature begins on TALK OF THE NATION called the Opinion Pages. On Mondays, we'll take an opinion piece from the weekend's newspapers and talk with the writer.

But first, if you have questions about the government's preparedness since 9/11, give us a call. If you work for the federal government, tell us what's changed. Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Lee Hamilton and Governor Tom Kean join us now here in Studio 3A. Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us today.

Former Governor THOMAS KEAN (New Jersey; Co-chair, 9-11 Commission): Thank you.

Former Representative LEE HAMILTON (Indiana; Co-chair, 9-11 Commission): Thank you.

CONAN: Governor Kean, let's begin with you, and we'll get to the specifics in just a moment, but the last few days, as you've been interviewed about this, you've been saying that the most important overall problem is the lack of urgency.

Mr. KEAN: I think that's right, and it was also, by the way, something we noted before 9/11 in our report, because we said that good people in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration were looking at this problem, but it was low on the totem pole. It wasn't high enough on the priority list, and we believe the same thing's happened. As 9/11 recedes in memory, a lot of these recommendations that are designed to make the American people safer just are being put on the back burner, so they're either not proceeding at all or they're proceeding very, very slowly.

CONAN: And, to some degree, you can understand why. There are a lot of other com--you know, issues competing for attention. You've got Iraq, Afghanistan. You've got the deficit. You've got Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. KEAN: And all sorts of other issues, Sam Alito, the whole business.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. KEAN: But as I go around the country talking to people, you can talk about any of those issues, then you bring up an issue affecting the safety of them and of their children, and that takes priority. I mean, everybody I know of that I talk to wants this at the top of the priority list and wants Washington to pay attention.

CONAN: Congressman Hamilton, the report finds blame with both the executive branch, with the president, and with Congress, but again, it seems to be a failure of political will, a failure of leadership.

Mr. HAMILTON: Yes. I think that's correct. We understand that what we're asking government to do is not easy to do. It takes a lot of concentrated effort. It takes a lot of competence. It also takes passion. And it takes leadership. We've been given a very large responsibility. We've fulfilled it to the best of our abilities. And at the end of the day here, we have to turn over to the responsible officials, the elected officials, the information we have, and the recommendations we have for implementation. It's a question of political leadership and political will.

CONAN: Is it--one of the successes, I think, of the 9-11 Commission--it was a bipartisan panel, and it was--it really did work in a bipartisan manner. Its recommendations were unanimous. It stayed together throughout the whole process of the commission hearings and the publication of the report. It stayed together in the year and a half after the report. One of its successes also was, I think, that it endeavored not to play the blame game. You weren't going to pin the blame on President Clinton. You weren't going to pin the blame on President Bush. Obviously, fault was found in both administrations, but names were not named, for the most part. In retrospect, was that, you know, the right way to go in terms of--if--one of the reasons you did that was to get unanimity and movement towards reform; yet reform seemed to be blocked.

Mr. KEAN: Well, if you read the story in the report, there's plenty of blame to go around. And anybody who's read our report can come to those conclusions. But we thought we had two duties. One was to tell the story historically to the best of our ability, and I'm delighted at the fact that it's now used in classrooms, so it's been accepted pretty much by the academic community as a true story of 9/11 as we know up to this point.

The second is to learn lessons out of each of those stories, to learn the fact we didn't really know that terrorists were moving around the country, because the intelligence agencies didn't talk to each other, so there was no communications, so we learned that, so we made a recommendation to reform the intelligence agencies and try to force them to talk together. And every one of our recommendations like that one came out of some lesson we learned out of 9/11. We learned 15 of the 19 got in illegally to this country, by using documents that were either forged or didn't have the proper--and so we recommended changing the way people get into this country. I mean--but that was our responsibility: to tell the story to the best of our ability, the blame--there's plenty to be shared, but then to make recommendations to make the American people safer. And we concentrated this last year, frankly, on the recommendations.

Mr. HAMILTON: I think it's important to note that we didn't have the power to pursue the question of accountability. We were a statutory, created body, and we had to follow the statute, and the statute told us to do the two things that Tom Kean just mentioned: number one, the history, the telling of the story, and number two, the recommendations.

CONAN: We want to give listeners a chance to ask their questions about what was in the report, about what's been implemented. 989-8255 is the phone number--(800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail, totn@npr.org.

And we'll begin with Michael. Michael calling us from Bethany Beach in Delaware.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. I was directly involved in the mesh networks' efforts to give the fire, police and emergency system the capability to respond to an event like 9/11, similar to what happened in New Orleans, and actually, some of my co-workers were involved, trying to give New Orleans that capability, and we were never able to get this past the funding; in other words, the people that evaluated the system said, `Yes, this is the system that we want,' but instead of that, they got overruled with the 800 megahertz system, which is business as usual. In the state of Delaware, the state spent $60 million to put the 800 megahertz system in place and was, in the process, spending an additional $17 million in Delaware, again, to try to make the 800 megahertz work. We could have covered the entire state of Delaware, for instance, for $24 million and were turned down.

CONAN: In microcosm, Congressman Hamilton, that's what's happened in a lot of places, and it's happened on the federal level as well.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, it surely is, and we need to commend Michael here for his efforts, because that's exactly the kind of thing that has to be done across the country.

MICHAEL: Yes, but I had to change business...

Mr. HAMILTON: That...

MICHAEL: ...because I can't afford to keep pushing this up the hill, and what has happened is that the company that was providing that breakthrough system, which is actually a ...(unintelligible) version of the wireless soldier. That company was bought out...

CONAN: Yeah.

MICHAEL: ...and basically put out of business.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, that's the kind of story that we have heard repeatedly over and over again. This has technical aspects that are difficult. The radio...

MICHAEL: No, no, no...

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, the radio spectrum, of course, is a hugely profitable piece of property, and so there are powerful forces here operating against making available part of that radio spectrum to the first responders. For those of us on the commission, it's a very simple matter. We lost lives in New York City because the first responders could not talk to one another on the ground. By definition, a disaster is a very confusing and chaotic place, so at the very least, the key responders have to be able to talk to one another. The good news here is that there is a bill pending in the Congress right now to require the return of the analog TV broadcast spectrum to first responders, reserving some of it for public service purposes. But Tom and I are not very happy even with that bill, which has not yet gone on through because it contains a 2009 handover date. Now that's four years in the future or three years.

CONAN: So you just send Osama a memo, say, `Wait four years, we'll be ready.'

Mr. HAMILTON: They're not going to wait. There is almost certain to be a disaster in this country, either manmade or natural, within the next three years, and this is something that should be corrected immediately. We think on the commission that it's scandalous that we--here, four years after 9/11, we don't have a common communications system for first responders.

CONAN: Governor Kean, as you look at what happened in and around--on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita afterwards, what problems were illustrated? And also, like, you know, some people said, `Well, jeez, it looked like after 9/11, we focused too much on the problem of terrorism and not enough on the problem of natural disasters.'

Mr. KEAN: Well, the response is the same. I mean, we made recommendations in two areas. One was communications, and we just talked about that. The same problem that's happened in the World Trade Center happened in Katrina. People who were in helicopters couldn't talk to people in boats. People who were in the medical service couldn't talk to people in other towns who were in the police or fire. And the lack of coordination cost lives. Just that simple. Congress--had they acted prior to Katrina, a lot of those lives could have been saved.

Secondly, we talked about command and control. Somebody's got to be in charge. Nobody was in charge on 9/11 when they got to the site. Nobody knew what the police, fire, Port Authority--nobody knew who was in charge. Now that's been straighted out in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg has got a system now, the police are in charge, period. There was no system in New Orleans. There was no system in Louisiana, and we all saw it on television. We saw the confusion. We saw the chaos. We saw the lack of communications, and the result of all that, again, was people died who didn't have to die, and now our recommendations are very simple. You've got to have spectrums so that people can talk to each other, and you've got to have a command and control system in every area, so if a natural disaster or a terrorist strikes, we are able to respond efficiently with one person in charge.

CONAN: We'll have more after a short break. If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. Our guests are the former governor of New Jersey, Thomas Kean, and former congressman from Indiana, Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the 9-11 Commission and of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which succeeded it.

I'm Neal Conan. Back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the final report of the 9-11 Commission, the final report card on recommendations. That was published today. The report says the federal government has failed to take urgent steps needed to protect the United States from another attack. Our guests are the former co-chairs of the commission, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean.

Of course, you're invited to join us. Our phone number is (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Here's an e-mail question from Richard in Bethesda, Maryland. `I thought DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, was created as one department to get the nation ready for another terrorist attack and get the disparate agencies talking to each other. Is this happening or not? What is DHS doing?' Congressman Hamilton.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, I think it's trying hard. This is a very complex task, bringing on all of these agencies together and making them work harmoniously. We've had a good bit of experience with reorganizing government, and the fact of the matter is it doesn't go easily, whether you're talking about the Department of Energy or any others. So I think the big problem I see at the moment is that although they talk a lot about making the hard choices, they're not making the hard choices, and they have to begin.

Let's illustrate it this way. You have a lot of chemical plants in the country. You cannot protect all of them. You have to make judgments about which ones are most vulnerable. And those are tough judgments to make. They call for priorities, and politicians have a tough time setting priorities because they can be wrong. But they are hard choices, and they ought to be made. And I think that DHS is doing many things good. You've got a lot of people, including the secretary, that are working very hard at it. But they are not yet making the hard choices.

CONAN: Similarly in Congress, the commission says Congress is not making hard choices in allocating Homeland Security money. The choices seem to be being made on, well, we'll carve it up based on population, or everybody gets a share, as opposed to saying, well, maybe New York, Washington, Los Angeles might be higher priority targets for terrorists than--to pick a place--Dubuque or Tulsa or Lincoln.

Mr. KEAN: That's absolutely correct, and it's one of the things we called actually a scandal; that Congress has decided to take this money, take it home to their districts, and not even supervise very carefully how it's spent. So we've had some of this money spent on body armor for dogs, some of it spent on air conditioning garbage trucks--I mean, that kind of thing. And not the priority for Washington, New York, Los Angeles, anybody who has a nuclear plant near them, a chemical plant, some of the great ports in this country--they should have the priority, because that's where Osama bin Laden wants to attack, and he's told us so. It isn't as if we don't know that.

So the lack of priority setting and the fact that Congress is doling this money out in really a pork-barrel sense instead of doling it out to the areas that need it the most is, I think, of all our reports, one of the greatest scandals that nothing has been done in that area. Now there is a--right now, there is a bill pending in Congress that could fix it. The House has already passed it. The House has passed a good bill that would allocate these things according to risk. The Senate has a committee that's tied 5-and-5. We need one more senator. If we get one more senator, this problem can be taken care of.

CONAN: And which committee would that be, in case anybody wanted to look at it on the World Wide Web?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, it's a conference committee on the Patriot Act, where this bill is pending. The House has passed this good bill that Tom refers to on, I think, three separate occasions, but I think right now, Congress is coming to a close for this year. They'll be in session for the next couple of weeks probably, so right now, the focus has to be on this conference committee on the Patriot Act. That's the one where the House inserted the provision that we're trying to get support for, which is to allocate funds on the basis of risk.

CONAN: Another consistent problem, Congress, of course, is figuring out which committee has oversight over which part of this gigantic aspect of this, because it's not easy to figure out whether it's the intelligence committee or the--if there is a Homeland Security committee, whether it's that or whether...

Mr. KEAN: And that also is something that Congress has got to fix; two areas. One area is--we talk about Homeland Security. There's a multitude of committees now that oversee Homeland Security. Now when there are too many committees overseeing something, there really is no oversight, and that's the problem with that, and Secretary Chertoff and his deputies spend much too much of their time testifying before these various committees rather than doing their job of protecting us.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Hugh. Hugh calling us from Oakland, California.

HUGH (Caller): Hi. Adding to what you just said, a laundry list of how each senator or district in Congress is spending the money might be welcome by the public. The reason I'm calling is because my brother is on the Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas, and is on duty right now and asked me to call in to your program. And what he mentions is that they--after they've caught people immigrating, including from countries of interest, meaning those that have been tied to possible terrorism--after they've caught illegal immigrants, 90 percent of them are let go on catch-and-release to appear at a future court date, to which almost nobody shows up for obvious reasons.

And he's wondering both what can be done to change that and how Congress can actually hear from individual members of the Border Patrol and other government programs? Because a lot of times, their superiors are too busy brown-nosing to make everything look good, when there's actually much bigger problems or things that aren't being addressed. They've actually found Iraqi currency in the past, only one instance, but one instance is enough; as well as like, as I say, this catch-and-release of illegals from countries of interest.

CONAN: Immigration reform, including, obviously, the national security aspect of it, has been on the table as of late, but there are bills in Congress again that are all over the place on this, Congressman Hamilton.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, there are. Now we've got to separate two problems here.

HUGH: Yes.

Mr. HAMILTON: We did not deal with immigration. That's a vast field in and of itself. And our recommendations were principally aimed at the terrorist who's trying to get into this country.

HUGH: Right.

Mr. HAMILTON: Keep in mind that the 19 who came in here did not slip across the border. They came through our regular system. And now there is a terrorist travel strategy that is in development. A report is due out by law on December the 17th of this year, just a few days away, and I think that's a very important strategy statement, which will, I hope, kind of lay out the plans for dealing with terrorists who come across the border. We have to have a comprehensive screening system, and there is some progress on that, but still too many differences to be resolved with regard to the problems. We favor a biometric entry and exit system. Progress is being made there now. The US-VISIT program is in effect in a hundred and fifteen airports, 15 seaports, but not all of the screening takes place that should take place. And we need a good bit more international collaboration here, because we can't do it all by ourselves. So in general, the problems of border security--I think some considerable progress had been made, but an awful lot more needs to be done.

Now the second part of the question really relates to how you relate to the Congress, and I can't go beyond saying that I think it's terribly important that all of these people that know a lot about that border should be in touch regularly not just with their representatives and senators, but others as well, to educate them about some of the problems you confront.

HUGH: And apparently, they've tried to do this, but they get shot down by their immediate supervisors. I shouldn't say their immediate supervisors, but the ones in charge of a station or a district who don't want to hear any negative complaints transmitted to their superiors, and it's very hard. And specifically, the catch-and-release is something that's been in existence since well before 9/11, but at one point, the countries of interest were more taken into account; that is that they wouldn't catch and release people from countries of interest, but actually in the past couple years, they've been re-releasing countries of interest--people from countries of interest just like they would any other illegal coming from Mexico or Central America. So there is no distinction happening, and that sounds like a slip-back.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, you don't need permission to go talk to your congressional representative from anybody.

HUGH: True, true, true. And he...

Mr. HAMILTON: You can do it...

HUGH: ...has tried that.

Mr. HAMILTON: ...publicly, or you can do it privately. I used to have scores and scores of people come to me and say, `Now, look, I don't want my boss to know about this.'

HUGH: Right.

Mr. HAMILTON: That's perfectly OK. These people have an important story to tell, and they should go to their representatives and tell the story.

HUGH: Well-said. OK.

CONAN: Thanks, Hugh.

Let's talk now with Glen, and Glen's calling us from Elkhorn in Wisconsin.

GLEN (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

GLEN: A pleasure to be able to talk. My question goes to both of the distinguished commissioners here, and I'm wondering if either of them believes that the commission itself deserves to have a report card the same way they are issuing a report card upon the follow-up procedures after their report? Because as I understand it, there are many, many, many questions and avenues that were not pursued under the 9-11 Commission that promised to tell the complete story, and I can raise three examples real quick. One is the destruction of World Trade Center 7. The second is the money that was transferred between the Pakistani secret service and Mohamed Atta. And the third, a discussion of the military exercises that were going on the day of 9/11. None of that was included in the 9-11 report, and these are very important issues.

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, my recollection is that some of it may be in the report.

Mr. KEAN: Some of it's in the footnotes, actually, yeah.

Mr. HAMILTON: Actually in the footnotes as well. But it is true that when you run a commission like this, you are inundated with information. We had, I think, over two million documents that we examined. We had hundreds of calls on a daily basis of information. We were 10 commissioners. We had a relatively small staff, and we sorted through that information the best we can. Tom and I insisted that when we got information from a source that we really did not know anything about, that that information be verified, and preferably verified by documentation.

We do not claim to have written the final history of 9/11. We do claim to have written an authoritative history of it. This event of 9/11 will be examined for decades if not centuries to come. We're still investigating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A lot of stories are gonna come forth. We don't for a minute pretend we have the final truth here, and we and the country should be open to any information that is carefully developed and documented, as either adding to what we have said or correcting what we have said.

CONAN: And I should say that one of the issues that's come up subsequent to the report is Able Danger. This is Congressman Weldon of Pennsylvania and lately the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, saying that this was information ignored that could have identified, did identify Mohamed Atta as a terrorist beforehand. Governor Kean has been kind enough to join us on this program before and said very much the same thing that Congressman Hamilton was just saying about this other information. No documentary evidence, interesting. It was pursued, it was followed up. Maybe there's another story to be told, but as yet, no proof, which is again what you said yesterday on "Meet the Press."

Mr. KEAN: Yeah, this is--we had so many leads and we tried to follow every one. The families presented us themselves with thousands of questions to be answered, and we tried to follow up every lead and every one. The Able Danger thing is an example. I mean, this is--we found out about Able Danger, asked for every document the federal government possessed on Able Danger, got every document. Went through every document, studied it, and there was nothing in those documents mentioning Mohamed Atta, which now people say there was. We reasked for the documents, looked at them again, there was nothing that mentions Mohamed Atta. People talk about a chart. There is no chart available with Mohamed Atta on it. Mohamed Atta would not even at the time have used the name Mohamed Atta because he had another name at the time.

So anyway, as should be with any of these things, the Senate Intelligence Committee is looking into it. They should be. My understanding, they'll come up with a report and I'll be interested in the report.

CONAN: Glen, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking about the final report card of the 9-11 Commission. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Tom. Tom with us from Oklahoma City.

TOM (Caller): How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

TOM: I'd like to ask your panel to respond to a couple of concerns I have. I retired out of the intelligence special operations community and spent a second career with another federal agency in the intelligence operations, the technology field, and now I'm involved in industrial security. There are two things that continue to confound me. One is that we seem to be having a love affair with technology, thinking that expenditures on technology are going to solve what is basically a manpower problem. We don't have enough trained, experienced analysts and HUMINT specialists. And the other thing is that we've totally ignored the capabilities of the private industrial security (unintelligible) we seem to treat them as a yard child rather than bringing them in as part of the infrastructure for dealing with terrorism. And I'll take the comments--I'll listen to them on the radio.

CONAN: OK, Tom. Thanks for the call.

Mr. KEAN: Well, you're absolutely right, first of all. One of our prime recommendations was just that, that we have to get back to--HUMINT is human intelligence, actually having people inside these terrorist organizations trying to get information out to us. And we have to train people that way. They have to learn the language. It takes time. But I believe that's Porter Goss' top priority, as enunciated for the reform of the CIA. And there's no question the private sector particularly--you mentioned technology--technology area has been ahead of government, and you know, your credit card companies and so on, they'll nail you in two seconds, better than the government, and they'll find you faster, too. And not to use them and not to work with them, it's a great mistake.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We just have a little over a minute left, and Congressman Hamilton, let me ask you this. Do you feel a bit like Cassandra, the prophet who was doomed to be right but also doomed not to be listened to?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, we've been listened to, I think, our fair share. A lot that we recommended with the support of the president and the Congress has, in fact, been enacted, so we can't complain. We've had our audiences. Tom and I have testified dozens and dozens of times. We--the commissioners have given over 500 speeches across the country. To sum it up, though, when you put it all together, we think there's a lack of urgency--you began that at the top of the program--in government about this problem of securing our people, and we just feel that though some positive things have been done, there's an awful lot of room for improvement. And we think, with all of the problems the government faces, this should be at the top, and it is not.

CONAN: Congressman Lee Hamilton, used to represent a district in Indiana, Democrat, and Thomas Kean, Republican, former governor of the state of New Jersey. They co-chaired the 9-11 Commission and the subsequent 9/11 Public Discourse Project which followed up on implementation of its recommendations.

Thank you both very much for being with us today.

Mr. HAMILTON: Thank you.

Mr. KEAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll be talking about withdrawal from Iraq. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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