"Leaders Pick Up Urgency of 9/11 Panel," reads a front-page
headline in the July 24 Washington Post. Good news. Or is it?
It's not that the 9/11 commission's report is lacking. It's been widely hailed, and rightly so, as generally on the mark. It offers fair suggestions for what should be the next steps in improving homeland security. Congress and the Bush administration should be commended for wanting to act on them, and soon.
But haste isn't necessarily a virtue here. It's more important to get the next steps right than to get there fast.
As much as we may want to believe otherwise, it's unlikely that the most significant proposed reforms would help much in stopping the next attack. It would take years to reap the full benefits of many of them, even if we wrote them into law today.
Still, it is worth doing and worth getting right. When we created what became the Department of Defense and the CIA in 1947, no one expected they would win the Cold War by 1948. We needed the right instruments to fight a long war. Likewise, we need weapons for the long war on terrorism.
Another reason not to rush is that in many cases, we've already started. Of the 40 or so recommendations the commission made, most are consistent with initiatives taken since the 9/11 attacks. Some are already law, such as the Department of Homeland Security's United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), an automated system to expedite legitimate travelers while singling out those who intend to do us harm. Others are proposals now under consideration.
So, in large part, America needs to keep on the course it is on -- targeting terrorist sanctuaries, building international cooperation, and engaging in the struggle of ideas to discredit the fascism of international terrorism. We also need to keep improving on the homefront --building layered defenses and public-private partnerships to improve security while protecting the lives and property, as well as the civil liberties, of our citizens.
Of the work left undone, Congress and the Bush administration need to pay particular attention to reforming congressional oversight and national intelligence community. These are the tough tasks, ones that have been avoided so far since 9/11. Now, however, Washington has run out of excuses. It's time to act. Here is what policy-makers should do:
1) Appoint an intelligence chief. The president doesn't have to wait for congressional action. George Tenet, who served as the director of the Intelligence Community (DCI) and head of the CIA, has resigned. Both jobs are empty. Given the ongoing terrorist threat, Bush should fill them now. He should forward his nominees for a new DCI and a deputy to Congress as soon as possible, and lawmakers should waste no time considering them. The DCI would serve as the head of the community until congressional legislation formally establishes a separate position. The deputy would run the CIA.
2) Get ready for intelligence reform. Getting the reform right is critical, because whatever is done likely will stand for generations. Congress should hold extensive hearings on intelligence reform now, which would lay the groundwork for legislation next session.
3) Reauthorize the Patriot Act. If lawmakers want to legislate something right away, they should reauthorize the provisions of the Patriot Act due to sunset in 2005. Among these are measures that helped tear down the "wall" separating the sharing of information between law enforcement and intelligence officials. Congress should review the provisions in the act, as the 9/11 panel suggested, and then reauthorize the sunset provisions.
4) Reform thyself. The message from the 9/11 commission was clear. Congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence is abysmal. Intelligence committees need to be strengthened with long-term appointments for members, a larger and more capable staff, and a clear mandate. We should consolidate responsibilities for homeland security in single committees in the House and Senate -- committees that should be charged with overseeing the Department of Homeland Security.
"Time is not on our side," said Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission. But acting quickly won't help if we don't act wisely. If policy-makers accomplish the four steps listed above before the elections, they will have acquitted themselves well and made important steps in meeting the challenges laid out by the 9/11 Commission.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He served 25 years of active duty in the U.S. Army.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire