9/11 Commission’s unhappy legacy

The 9/11 Commission dissolved Monday, leaving behind the legacy of a best-selling history of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, some chairs shuffled in Washington’s bureaucracy, and a debate over its own effectiveness.

At their farewell meeting, commissioners released a report card giving the government failing grades for its actions to prevent another attack like the one on Sept. 11, 2001.

And although the commissioners said they aren’t happy with their legacy, the panel did give Americans a glimpse of what Washington’s secret government does and how the CIA spends its $40 billion budget.

It scored one major bureaucratic victory by pushing for the creation of a czar to oversee the activities of all federal intelligence agencies _ a post currently occupied by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte. But the recommendations for broader reforms of the intelligence community, including making the CIA’s annual budget public, have been ignored.

As former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., noted, the commission is likely to be remembered in 50 years only for the history it wrote of the attacks _ a volume that is unusual in the lore of commission reports for its dramatic style and readability.

The 10-member panel, known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, officially went out of business a year ago, but stayed around as an informal panel for a year longer to issue periodic statements scolding Congress for failing to adopt its major recommendations.

In its report card on how the government carried out its 41 recommendations, the commission gave the bureaucracy 12 D’s, five F’s and two incompletes.

“If my children received this report card, they would have to repeat the grade,” said former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind.

David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University in North Carolina, said the problem is that the searing events of 9/11 are receding into memory.

“The 9/11 Commission is right on the mark in concluding that our country has lost its sense of urgency in defending against acts of terrorism and taking the steps necessary to reduce the national security threats posed by radical Islamic fundamentalism,” Schanzer said.

Schanzer said the laggardly federal response to Hurricane Katrina shows how unprepared the country remains to major disasters, and attacks abroad show that al Qaeda remains a potent threat.

Senate historian Donald Ritchie said the commission should take some comfort in knowing some of its recommendations for changes in government operations were adopted.

“In general, they are lucky to get any of their recommendations adopted,” Ritchie said. “A lot of commissions have filed reports, and no one pays attention. By the time they have done their work, attention has moved onto something else _ which is, of course, the reason why presidents create commissions.”

President Bush initially was reluctant to create a commission to look into the attacks, but families of 9/11 victims successfully kept up pressure on the White House for an official investigation and explanation for why their loved ones died. The panel kept public interest high by holding many of their sessions in public and releasing many intelligence reports that previously were classified _ including texts of the president’s daily CIA briefings that never before had been released.

Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the committee and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said he understood that it was too much to expect that Congress would accept the commission’s recommendations that members of the House and Senate narrow down the number of committees overseeing the FBI and CIA.

For powerful chairmen of congressional committees, that would mean ceding their authority to call on the carpet senior administration officials and quiz them on agency activities. But Hamilton said there are too many oversight committees and “when there are too many committees responsible, no one is responsible.”

But former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, a Republican, said he was frustrated that congressional pork-barrel politics has permitted some cities to use their share of homeland-security funding to air-condition garbage trucks and buy Kevlar-armored jackets for police dogs.

“We have too quickly forgotten the lessons of 9/11,” he said. “I come out of politics, so I understand it takes a little grease to make it go. But how do you justify spending dollars when it doesn’t protect us?”

Some recommendations the commission felt urgent are still pending in Congress.

Four years after the attacks, Congress still has not cleared the airways for new communications channels that would permit fire and police to communicate with each other easily during emergencies _ a major problem exposed during the New York attacks when frustrated firefighters caught in the World Trade Center towers couldn’t communicate to police because they use different communications channels.

Congress is now considering bills that would set a 2009 date for that to begin by freeing up the communications channels now used by analog TV broadcasts and require an estimated 76 million American households to buy digital converters so they can continue to receive over-the-air TV broadcasts that will be sent out on a higher spectrum.

Also waiting are recommendations that American air passengers be made more secure by having all of the cargo go through screening. Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican and chairman of the commission, said the technological problems have been resolved, but the machines have not been bought.

Kean believes the commission did have an impact. “Are we safer? There’s no question about that _ there’s been no attacks since 9/11. But we are not as safe as we could be,” he said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)shns.com)