Response builds over 9/11 report

Just a week after its publication, the 9/11 commission's report is selling out of bookstores, its website has been flooded with traffic, and, more pointedly, the panel has captured the attention of official Washington in a way few such commissions ever do.

It's still unclear how many of the bipartisan body's recommendations will be enacted, or when. But pressure to deal with its findings has built with extraordinary speed since last Thursday's report.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry dubbed the report a "blueprint for action" and urged extending the commission's mandate another 18 months. President Bush had already called for steps "within days" on some of the its recommendations. Congress is launching new hearings, starting Friday, to jump-start legislation in the fall.

And the commission itself is moving forward to promote its case for sweeping reforms of everything from the intelligence oversights to major facets of US foreign policy.

"This is a moment of perfect storm in terms of intelligence reform....If something like this ever could be done, it's now," says Robert Boorstin, senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress.

Some of the key reforms appear, on the surface, to be another rearranging of bureaucratic boxes, such as the one that created the Department of Homeland Security not long after Sept. 11 or the Defense Department after Pearl Harbor.

But this effort potentially runs deeper: The report's recommendations range from a top-to-bottom overhaul of the intelligence function to engaging the struggle of ideas in the Muslim world. The recommendations are numerous, but key ones include:

• A new national intelligence director with Cabinet status and budget control of 15 agencies in the intelligence community.

• A civilian-led unified joint command for counterterrorism, which combines intelligence and operational planning, and centralized congressional oversight.

• Promoting US moral leadership and a Muslim world more friendly to American ideals, with special attention on three nations particularly vulnerable to becoming terrorist havens: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan - and more recently Iraq.

• Developing strategies for neglected areas of homeland security, from borders to biometric screening of travelers.

While blue-ribbon panels typically issue reports and then fade away, 9/11 panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, will be crisscrossing the US to build support for its conclusions.

"It's a voluntary thing," says commission vice chair Lee Hamilton. "We feel deeply about our recommendations."

In a Tuesday campaign stop in Norfolk, Virginia, Senator Kerry called for the commission to report every six months on whether federal agencies were moving rapidly enough on carrying out needed reforms. "We cannot let politics get in the way of protecting people," he said.

Some of the commission's harshest criticism was reserved for the Congress. Oversight is still so dispersed on Capitol Hill that dozens of committee chairmen can claim some piece of the security brief. What's needed is a single point of oversight on Capitol Hill, where a relatively small group of members have the time to master the subject and agencies and "be clearly accountable for their work," the commission says. Such a move would involve a major turf battle.

"History teachers us that those in positions of authority rarely seek to cede that authority easily, so I think the recommendations regarding congressional oversight will be among the most difficult to achieve," says commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. He adds that the commission's proposals are highly interrelated. Without congressional reform, the other elements will not be as effective.

In the first wave of reform after 9/11, Congress was also urged to centralize its oversight. In response, the House established a Select Committee on Homeland Security, comprised of other committee chairmen. But it has not prevented turf battles breaking out over how to spend homeland security dollars.

A key challenge in making America more safe is overcoming what the commission calls a failure "in imagination." For Congress and the White House, that involves asking the right questions, and knowing when the answers are accurate.

"What's needed is competent and very forceful leadership in the administration," says Aaron Gellman, an expert in aviation security at Northwestern University. "Things happen so fast....Congress can ask the right questions and demand responsive answers, either publicly or in private."

A central concern is the pace of change. While the new momentum behind the 9/11 report may keep the focus on reform, it could also be a distraction in an ongoing war, says former FBI and CIA director William Webster, now vice chair of the advisory council on homeland security.

"There are also concerns that I have when people are in a hurry to do things," he says. "Demands and the magnification of intelligence of failures over intelligence successes ... could create fixes that are not needed."

The Senate Government Operations Committee opens hearings on the implementation of the 9/11 commission recommendations with chairman Thomas Kean and vice chair Hamilton on Friday. In the House, hearings begins with the Government Reform Committee Tuesday. "We don't pretend ours is the only way to do it," says Hamilton. "But we do think there has to be movement across the board, including ... intelligence."

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