U.S. gets failing mark on terror

Former 9/11 panel calls for top priority on nuclear threat

November 15, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration came under fire yesterday from members of the former 9/11 Commission for failing to respond adequately to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The former commissioners said that preventing Islamic extremists from obtaining a nuclear weapon must be the country's highest priority and warned that an attack on an American city "would be catastrophic."

The group gave the White House and Congress "failing grades" in several other areas, including working with other countries on a common strategy to counter terrorism, promoting reform in Saudi Arabia and countering madrassa schools that encourage Islamic extremism.

They also criticized the administration and Congress for failing to establish with U.S. allies a common policy for handling detainees.

In an interview after the release of their report, former 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean called it their "most important report yet." It was the last of three progress reports.

The White House and Congress have done "not nearly enough" to ensure that nuclear material doesn't fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, said Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey. "The most striking thing to us is that the size of the problem still totally dwarfs the policy response."

After issuing its 567-page report in July 2004, the 911 Commission reconstituted itself as the nonprofit 911 Public Discourse Project.

Kean called on President Bush to elevate the threat of nuclear terrorism above all others and "ride herd" government bureaucracy to address it. Right now, he said, "It's not even close to No 1."

The president must also speed up the timetable for containing nuclear material from the former Soviet Union that has moved around the globe since the U.S.S.R.'s breakup, Kean said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino disputed Kean's description, saying that nuclear terrorism is an "extremely high priority" for the president.

Earlier this year, Bush established a new office to coordinate the government response to nuclear terrorism - the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office - but he has talked little about it since.

"They're still in the process of standing up their agency," said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke, but he said the agency was focused on improving the country's ability to detect nuclear materials at the borders.

Perino pointed to several additional programs at the Energy Department and the FBI to improve detection of nuclear materials and to prevent nuclear weapons from being detonated.

Bush has also expanded the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort to work with other countries to stop weapons shipments, which, as he noted in a speech Friday, has "stopped more than a dozen shipments of suspect weapons technology."

But Kean said detection efforts are largely futile in a country with open borders. He added that at its current pace of securing nuclear materials in former Soviet countries, the government will not complete its work for 14 more years.

"This is unacceptable," he said. Nuclear specialists say it could be done in three to four years if made a top priority, Kean said.

More than 100 nuclear reactors around the world have the materials to make a nuclear weapon and half of them lack basic security, Kean said.

The former commissioners also critiqued the government's efforts to prod Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, to join in the fight against Islamic extremism and promote economic reform.

The commissioners were "disappointed" with the progress the United States has made in establishing a stronger relationship with Saudi Arabia focused on national security rather than oil, said Lee Hamilton, former vice chairman of the commission.

They also expressed concern about the country's image abroad. Kean said he was happy that Bush had installed Karen Hughes as the State Department's chief emissary to the Muslim world because she has his confidence, but he said the department's progress has been "very slow."

Part of the image problem, said several commissioners, is the detainee abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere. The commission recommended that a coalition of countries draw up common guidelines for the treatment of detainees, which the administration has not pursued.

"We need to recapture the position of world leadership we have squandered, not further degrade it," said former commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste.

Hamilton also criticized the government's slow work at closing down madrassas in Pakistan.

The State Department, where former 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow now serves as a counselor to the secretary of state, reserved judgment on the report. "We're currently reviewing its findings," said State Department spokesman Justin Higgins.

The White House has "taken action" on all but two of the commission's 40 or so recommendations, Perino said.

The commissioners said the government has adopted just half of their recommendations.

Yesterday's report card - the third in a series they have issued this the fall - is in some ways the most positive. It found that the government has made "good progress" on employing economic policies to counter terrorism and on combating terrorist financing.

Yet former commissioner Tim Roemer said in an interview yesterday that the government received its worst grades in the most important categories and its best grades in the lower priority categories.

"The government is receiving failing grades in areas that will really determine whether we win the long-term war against radical jihadists," Roemer said.

In December the commissioners will release a final report card that addresses all of their recommendations together, and commissioners are debating whether to issue letter grades, said Kean.

"There are some F's out there that are just waiting to be given," he warned.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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