In the movie "World Trade Center," Nicolas Cage, playing the role of a real-life police sergeant rushing on 9/11 to the burning Twin Towers that had just been hit, is asked by an accompanying officer what the rescue plan is. "There is no plan," he replies grimly. While the various New York emergency forces had planned for more predictable disasters, they were ill-prepared for an aerial Al Qaeda attack on the huge skyscrapers.
While much has been done in the five years since 9/11 to plan for another terrorist attack, two of the most credible authorities to speak on the subject fear that Americans are still unprepared in a number of critical areas.
The bipartisan commission of inquiry into the 9/11 disaster was co-chaired by former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. They and their fellow commission members spent many months examining all aspects of the attack, interviewing hundreds of witnesses, gathering mountains of data, and finally producing a report that focused on deficiencies and recommendations for improvement.
Like other members of their commission, they vowed to keep the issues before the American public. In various conversations with journalists, appearances on television, and now with the publication of a new book, "Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission," Messrs. Kean and Hamilton are doing just that. They actually offer a report card on the recommendations they made, relate any actions that have been taken, and offer a grade.
Their overriding concern is preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear weapon and exploding it in an American city. Kean says that 500,000 lives could be lost in the explosion of such a device in Manhattan. In their book, the two commission co-chairmen warn: "These are the weapons Osama bin Laden has promised to obtain and use ... such a possibility must be elevated above all other problems of national security."
They warn that after 14 years, only half of Russia's nuclear materials have been neutralized under a joint US-Russian agreement to reduce nuclear weaponry. The other half remain a risk. "This is unacceptable. The terrorists will not wait. We still do not have a maximum effort against the most urgent threat to the American people." Kean and Hamilton give the US government a big fat "D" for the effort so far.
Another of the commission's most important recommendations gets an outright "F" for implementation so far. The commission recommended that new funding for homeland security be given to the riskiest targets. Obviously high on the list would be New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. Instead, a lot of the funding has sometimes been pork-barreled out to areas and small towns unlikely to be targeted. A bill bottled up in Congress would remedy this. If passed, it would get an "A" from the commission.
Congress comes in for more criticism and a "D" from Kean and Hamilton for not moving on a "Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board" recommended by the commission. "Funding is insufficient, no meetings have been held, no work begun ... robust and continuing oversight, both within the executive and by the Congress, will be essential." The co-chairmen found reform within the Congress their most difficult recommendation to be implemented. "Now more than ever," they wrote, "Congress needs powerful oversight committees for intelligence and homeland security. Because so much information is classified, Congress is the only source of independent oversight on the full breadth of intelligence and homeland security issues before our country."
The prescreening of airline passengers and the improvement of checkpoints to detect explosives get low marks from the commissioners, as does screening of checked bags and cargo. Their remarks preceded the recent plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic but are still relevant.
On border security, the commissioners fault the lack of a comprehensive screening system. "Although agencies are moving ahead on individual screening projects, there is a lack of progress on coordination between agencies."
Kean and Hamilton seem generally pleased with the restructuring of the intelligence community but want to see more unity of effort. They warn against layering of more bureaucracy.
On public diplomacy, they welcome the increase in government broadcasting to the Arab and Muslim world but want to see more educational and cultural exchanges.
Sept. 11, 2001, they say, was a day of unbearable suffering but also of citizens coming together with a sense of urgency and purpose. Today that urgency and purpose are still needed.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.