Preventing another 9/11

The tome-like report of a high-level commission that goes unread and quickly winds up gathering dust in the archives is a Washington, D.C., cliche. That was not the fate of the 9/11 commission’s report; it quickly became a bestseller. Unfortunately, the commission’s recommendations have not had a similarly successful fate.

The worst fears of the Bush administration, which opposed formation of the commission, were not realized. The five Republican and five Democratic members were scrupulously non-partisan, with the sternest criticism of the administration generally coming from the Republicans. The commission was less concerned with laying blame for 9/11 _ too little, in the opinion of some of the victims’ families _ than preventing a recurrence. To that end, in July 2004, the commission submitted 41 anti-terrorism recommendations before formally disbanding.

Private funding allowed the commission to stay together and this week issue a “report card” on the implementation of its recommendations. The report card may be a gimmicky device, but in its own way it dramatizes how much the urgency has gone out of the drive to protect the nation against another terrorist attack.

The only A was awarded to efforts to disrupt the financing of terrorist networks. There were five F’s representing serious failings. Among them: Allocating homeland security funds to the states on a per capita rather than a risk-assessment basis, guaranteeing that much of the money is wasted. There is still not a consolidated terrorist watch list for airline screening. Inadequate and overlapping congressional oversight over intelligence functions. Failing to improve and unify radio communications among first responders. The fifth F is more problematic: uniform policies and standards for treating terrorist suspects held abroad.

As commissioner John Lehman, a top defense official in the Reagan administration remarked, none of this is rocket science.

In fairness, the commission’s principal recommendation _ creation of a director of national intelligence with line and budget authority _ was readily adopted, and the post is now held by veteran diplomatic troubleshooter John Negroponte. Congress and the White House earned a B on that one.

The 10 commissioners acted generously and unselfishly in staying together to monitor the fate of their work; there is no political credit for them in this. Instead of angling for political advantage from the report card, Congress should do them the courtesy of seriously addressing the remaining concerns.

Chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor, said, “We shouldn’t need another wake-up call. We believe that the terrorists will strike again; so does every responsible expert that we have talked to. And if they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuse be?” And the answer will be: There is none.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)