WASHINGTON – On this five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks,Americans are safer,but not safe enough,former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean said at a National Press Club luncheon.
Kean chaired the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,which explored the Sept. 11 events and how they might have been prevented. The commission’s vice chair,former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton,the commission vice chair,also spoke about the 41 recommendations the 10-member commission made to Congress.
Congress has neglected the most important one,Kean said – allocating money to cities according to their security risk.
“That just sounded so logical and so easy,” he said. “And yet five years later,we're still not doing it.” Hamilton conceded that roughly half the recommendations are now law,but added,“The passage of the law is not the end of it.”
As an example,they said that Congress has yet to enact a law to provide radio frequencies so all first responders can talk to each other,a problem that resurfaced last year during Hurricane Katrina.
“I'm not going to jump on the Congress at this moment,although I could do that,” Hamilton said. “But I found,and I think Tom found,that this is an institution that is heavily burdened,under considerable stress.”
This stress has robbed Congress of the time necessary to build consensus and public support,Hamilton said. Furthermore,Hamilton said,members of Congress seem reluctant to review their difficulties to find solutions.
“This disturbed me throughout the commission hearings,” he said. “Look back and say what went wrong. But it just didn't happen. For all kinds of reasons,I guess,policymakers and politicians are reluctant to have their records examined.”
By contrast,he said,the commission found agreement though lengthy discussions. “How do you build consensus?” he said. “Well,I will tell you how. We talked and we talked and we talked. And so at 12 at night and at 1 in the morning and 2 in the morning,we would be sitting there talking about these recommendations and about the report itself.”
At the same time,public trust needed to be addressed,Hamilton said. “We found a great thirst for accountability in this country,” he said.
The commission’s public hearings helped to quench this thirst,he said. The hearings included appearances by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as well as the sharing of government documents. “We told the story that the people wanted to hear and had not been able to hear,” Hamilton said. “So they appreciated the effort of the commission to set out the record.”
Kean and Hamilton also discussed the successes and short-comings of the ABC two-part miniseries “The Path to 9/11,” which aired on Sept. 10 and 11. Kean,who advised the series that has spawned so much debate,said he considered the miniseries a “responsible job.” However,he noted that its producers did not follow all of his recommendations.
“But again,it was very hard to have a debate because the people who were presenting it,99 percent of them hadn't seen the thing they were talking about,” he said. “All I can say is that maybe it was just too early. I mean,people are still so enormously sensitive on this subject and so concerned and so volatile and so angry and so everything else,that maybe five years just isn't long enough.”
Hamilton said the miniseries may do more damage than simply upsetting its audience – it could also spread inaccuracies. Even ABC’s term for the series – “docudrama” – spelled trouble. “I don’t like the ring of that,” he said. “It is either a documentary or it is a drama,and to fudge it causes me a great deal of concern and suggests to me that news and entertainment are getting dangerously intertwined.”
Kean said Congress is still not working to prevent his greatest fear related to terrorism: a terrorist organization possessing a nuclear weapon. “We know that there are about a hundred sites that have enriched uranium around the world,” he said.
“We know that a number of those sites,many of them in the ex-Soviet Union,are still not secure,don't have proper guards,sometimes rusty fences. So if you ask me what I think the president and the Congress and everybody else ought to be concentrating on … it's getting these sites secured and making that a real priority,” Kean said.
Hamilton said the biggest threat is a sense of complacency among Americans since the attack.
“The great good fortune of the country,of course,is that we have not had an attack in this country since 9/11,” he said. “The truth of the matter is,nobody knows why. The big mistake,however,would be to become complacent because we've not had that attack.”
Although some members of Congress have made the effort,their labors have not been enough,Hamilton said.
“I just think in terms of urgency,our frustration is that so many of these recommendations we've made are really no-brainers,” he said. “They're very common-sense solutions,and we just can't figure out,frankly,why they haven't been quickly adopted. And what we see,I think,is a kind of a lack of urgency across the board.”
Kean said it was this kind of complacency that rendered the government so vulnerable on the day of the attacks.
“We see that sort of starting to happen again,where some of these things are not as high a priority as they once were,and we're losing some of that focus,” he said. “And if you believe,as we do,that the highest responsibility government has is the defense of the American people,particularly in the homeland,then we can't allow that to happen.”