Reporting from Washington —
Six years after the Sept. 11 commission issued a series of recommendations to boost U.S. defenses against terrorist attacks, the federal government has achieved "historic advances" in fulfilling them, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.
"We obviously put a lot into improving aviation security this past year," Napolitano said in an interview.
Still, she said, some seemingly simple goals have yet to be met, such as creating an allocation of radio spectrum for first responders to ensure smooth communication during a major disaster. That effort has foundered amid political battles over valuable airwaves.
First responders in big cities have radios that allow them to talk to one another, Napolitano said. But, she said, "there are areas of rural America where we don't have complete coverage, and that is something we are working on."
In the last year, Napolitano said, her department fulfilled a key Sept. 11 commission mandate when it took over from the airlines the process of screening U.S. passengers against terrorism watch lists. The department expects to do the same with international passengers by December, she said.
In a progress report, the department touted what it said were other accomplishments. It is on track to screen all air cargo on domestic passenger aircraft by August, and it now collects the fingerprints of all foreign visitors who seek entry visas.
In June, the department set up a voluntary program to set standards for disaster preparedness designed to promote better planning by large companies, hospitals and universities.
The Sept. 11 commission's co-chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, agreed that "in almost every area there has been some improvement."
Yet key recommendations remain unfulfilled, Kean said in an interview, including a strong national intelligence director who exercises authority over the country's sprawling intelligence bureaucracy and a streamlining of the Byzantine network of congressional committees — 108, by last count — that oversee the Department of Homeland Security.
Last year's Christmas Day attempted bombing attack pointed to intelligence-sharing problems that persist, Kean said. Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to board a U.S.-bound jetliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear even though he was on a terrorist watch list and his father had warned the U.S. government that he suspected his son was an extremist. The bomb didn't fully detonate.
The 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, chaired by Republican Kean and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, spent nearly two years reviewing 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewing 1,200 witnesses. On July 22, 2004, it presented a 567-page report that amounted to a sweeping indictment of federal actions leading up to the attacks. The commission also made dozens of recommendations.
"The 9/11 commission's recommendations have in many ways set the course for the department's efforts to combat security threats," Napolitano said.
Yet there is more to do. For example, the commission pushed for tougher standards to protect the integrity of identification documents. But a plan to force states to issue tamper-proof driver's licenses, known as Real ID, is dead, and Congress failed to take up Napolitano's alternative proposal.
The commission's "most important recommendation," as Kean put it — the creation of a national intelligence director — has been achieved, but with limited results.
There have been three directors and an acting director since the post was created in 2004. Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair resigned the position recently after clashing with the White House and the CIA. "We have some concern about the status of the DNI," Kean said.
President Obama's nominee to replace Blair, retired Air Force Gen. James R. Clapper, promised during his confirmation hearing this week to exert authority, but Kean said that "it comes down to the president" and whether he empowers the director.
Meanwhile, some experts say the U.S. has failed to take basic steps to address fundamental vulnerabilities.
Charles Faddis, a 20-year CIA veteran, spent months casing chemical and nuclear plants, dams, passenger rail lines and other potential terrorist targets for a book published this year, "Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security." He sketched out potential attacks that could kill tens of thousands, such as the bombing of a plant that would release deadly chlorine gas over Baltimore.
The idea: "If I was the bad guy, how difficult would it be to hit this target?" he said. "Unfortunately, the answer is, I found almost nothing that I would really consider to be a serious impediment."
Asked about that, Napolitano said, "We have lots of facilities and lots of critical infrastructure and lots of work to be done, but that's not to say a lot of work hasn't been done and a lot of work isn't underway."