9/11 commission finds security gaps
Washington - The 9/11 commission was set up to make sure such an attack never happens again. A decade on, its members say key recommendations have not been heeded and holes remain in US terror defences.
The commission, now reformed as an implementation group, acknowledges better collaboration between the CIA and the FBI and successes like the killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, but it says a great deal more must be done.
"We are much less vulnerable than we were before 9/11," former commission chairperson Tom Kean said in a recent interview. "Despite this considerable progress, some major 9/11 commission recommendations remain unfulfilled."
The bipartisan body spent 20 months studying the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil and produced an authoritative 2004 report.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the former commissioners issued a "report card", grading the US government on its performance and concluding it had fallen short on nine of its 41 recommendations.
Safer and more secure US
"Today, our country is undoubtedly safer and more secure than it was a decade ago," the Bipartisan Policy Centre’s National Security Preparedness Group said in a statement.
"We have damaged our enemy, but the ideology of violent Islamist extremism is alive and attracting new adherents, including right here in our own country."
One obvious failure: no legislation has been enacted to reserve a block of the communications spectrum so that police, firefighters and medics can use one secure channel.
"One big problem during 9/11 was that the first responders, the police and the firemen could not communicate with each other because they are on different bands," Kean, a former New Jersey governor, said.
"The policemen could not call the firemen out of town and people died because of that. The same thing happened with (Hurricane) Katrina: people on helicopters could not communicate with people on boats."
Improved emergency worker communications
Following the report card, House Homeland Security Committee chairperson Peter King did act, pushing on Thursday for improved emergency worker communications and for streamlined oversight of domestic counter-terrorism efforts.
King, a Republican, called for Congress to pass "as soon as possible" legislation he has written to reserve a block of the nation's broadband communications network to build a special "first responders" network.
"It's not difficult to do and it's one of the primary recommendations, something called the D-block, which is a spectrum we believed ought to be given to all first responders," said Kean.
King also vowed to work with Republican House Speaker John Boehner to streamline congressional oversight of the department of homeland security, created after the attacks to harmonise fractured counter-terrorism efforts.
The 9/11 commissioners said in their report that current oversight is "dysfunctional" and a "recipe for confusion", and that House and Senate homeland security panels lack "sufficient jurisdiction" over key agencies.
Biometric screening not implemented
"Homeland security reports to too many different congressional committees. That is not oversight, it's a waste of time, they spend too much time testifying and have not enough time to do their job," said Kean.
One other big criticism: government officials have failed to implement biometric screening at airports and to standardise secure identification protocols.
"We are still highly vulnerable to aviation security threats," the report said, citing the examples of the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009 and the plot to hide bombs in printer cartridges shipped on planes from Yemen.
Billions of dollars have been spent on tightening up aviation security, but the United States is still unable to reliably detect explosives that could bring down a commercial jetliner.
Failure to balance tighter security
"Unfortunately, explosives detection technology lacks reliability and lags in its capability to automatically identify concealed weapons and explosives," the report said.
The former commissioners were scathing about the failure to balance tighter security with maintaining civil liberties, an issue highlighted by the Department of Homeland Security's new airport body scanners.
"The next generation of whole body scanning machines also are not effective at detecting explosives hidden within the body and raise privacy and health concerns that DHS has not fully addressed," the report said.
"Our conclusion is that despite 10 years of working on the problem, the aviation screening system still falls short in critical ways with respect to detection."