Frightening report card from 9/11 commission

December 09, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- While President Bush paints Iraq as the central front in the war on terror, the former members of the 9/11 commission say the government isn't doing enough to protect us from another attack at home.

The bipartisan panel issued a shocking report card this week on the government's response to 41 recommendations the commission made in July 2004. The government earned five F's, 12 D's, two incompletes and only one high grade (an A-minus for blocking terrorist financing).

Even more unsettling were the emotions panelists displayed about the gaps in security precautions. "Are we crazy?" demanded former Illinois Republican Gov. James R. Thompson. "Why aren't our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives?"

If they're that scared, we should be, too. Despite some progress on homeland security, the issue isn't on the national front burner.

"It's not a priority for the government," complained Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and chairman of the panel. "A lot of things we need to do to prevent another 9/11 just simply aren't being done by the president or by the Congress."

One example that earned an F: Four years after 9/11, Congress still hasn't helped police and firefighters to communicate with each other in a disaster. At the World Trade Center, police couldn't talk by radio to firefighters to tell them the South Tower was about to topple. In 2005, local, state and federal officials couldn't communicate during Hurricane Katrina because their radio bands were not compatible. The same problem exists countrywide.

"This is a no-brainer," former Democratic Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, declared on Meet the Press. "From the standpoint of responding to a disaster, the key responders must be able to talk with one another." Yet Congress won't allocate needed radio spectrum to public safety agencies until 2009.

Another F-grade scandal: Congress has appropriated billions in homeland security funds on the basis of politics, not risk. Legislators from small states demand the same funds as states such as New York, where terrorist strikes are most likely. In fiscal 2005, Wyoming got $27.50 per person in first-responder grants while California received $8.05 per person. The port of New York and New Jersey - a prime potential target - got $6.6 million in security grants in 2005, about the same as the port of Memphis, Tenn.

The Department of Homeland Security gets a D on making critical risk assessments to determine which nuclear and chemical plants are in danger. Without such assessments, priorities can't be set and funds allocated to protect key sites.

Airline security rates C and D grades. There's still no unified watch list for terrorists against which to check passengers coming through airports. While we quibble about allowing passengers to carry small scissors on planes, most airline cargo still isn't checked for explosives.

And real scary: At most government levels, there's still no unified command system to respond to a disaster. No one knew who was in charge on 9/11 - or during Hurricane Katrina. Some local leaders may make their own plans, but the Department of Homeland Security has to set the standard from the top.

Why, four years after 9/11, is the government's report card so dismal? I asked Daniel Benjamin, co-author of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right.

"I don't think the administration ever had its heart in homeland security," Mr. Benjamin says. "It genuinely believed that if it fought terrorists `over there,' it didn't have to worry about over here."

But far from removing the terror threat, the Iraq war has bolstered global terrorist recruiting. Yet there's no sense of urgency at the White House.

"We believe another attack will occur" in the United States, Mr. Hamilton says. "We better get to it and protect the American people."

And the American people better urge the president and lawmakers to provide the protection they need.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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