WASHINGTON - Warning that the nation still lacks a "quarterback" to coordinate anti-terrorism activities, the leaders of the 9/11 commission yesterday urged Congress to act quickly to restructure the U.S. intelligence system to prevent another devastating attack.
Testifying at the first congressional hearing on their 576-page report on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, commission co-chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton said it is vital to "instill a sense of urgency in the American people" about the ongoing battle against Islamic terrorists.
The commission's report, a nationwide best-seller, blamed the Sept. 11 attacks in large part on a lack of coordination among the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Our enemies have said they will attack us, and they will attack us sooner rather than later," Mr. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, told members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "Every delay we have [in improving the situation] is a delay the American people can't tolerate."
Mr. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana, added: "We have concluded the intelligence community is not going to get its job done unless somebody really is in charge. That is just not the case now, and we have paid the price."
The Senate governmental affairs panel has focused its work on two major recommendations by the 10-member 9/11 commission: the need to pull all intelligence agencies into a national counterterrorism center and the need for a national intelligence director who would oversee intelligence operations.
The idea, Mr. Kean said, "is to try to force a sharing of information [among intelligence agencies] and then make one person responsible for it."
The present, decentralized system "is unacceptable and it doesn't work. The American people won't be as safe" if the current system is left in place, Mr. Kean said. "This is the best we could come up with. If people don't like it, please come up with something else. Don't leave the present system in place."
Other Senate and House committees will consider recommendations by the commission, including the politically thorny issue of reorganizing the way Congress oversees the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence system.
The commission urged Congress to create a bicameral intelligence panel or give House and Senate intelligence committees the power to both oversee and fund intelligence agencies. Those powers are split between different committees now.
The commission also suggested that Congress establish permanent homeland security committees in the House and the Senate.
The Senate governmental affairs panel will conduct another hearing next week, while various House committees have planned 15 hearings on the recommendations over the next month - an unusual step for Congress, which usually takes a break in August.
Congressional leaders have indicated they hope to vote before the congressional adjournment in October on legislation implementing many of the commission's recommendations.
Other commission recommendations can be implemented by executive orders from the President. White House staffers are in the midst of drafting the executive orders, and President Bush has indicated that he will act on them soon.
"Reform is not easy," Mr. Bush said at a campaign stop in Springfield, Mo. "Achieving reform requires taking on special interests, requires challenging the status quo."
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has endorsed the commission's recommendations. He also has suggested continuing the commission for another 18 months.
Meanwhile, members of the 9/11 commission have vowed to continue lobbying for the recommendations in their report. Although the federally funded commission will formally dissolve soon, panel members said yesterday that they will solicit private donations to open a small office in Washington to continue their lobbying efforts.
Commission members also plan to travel around the country to press their case and build support for the recommendations.
At yesterday's hearing, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), who chairs the committee, noted that "massive reorganizations of government are always controversial. ... [But] power struggles, for authority and responsibility, however well-motivated, cannot be allowed to doom needed reforms."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D.,Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, added: "We cannot let another attack succeed because of our own inaction. ... We must act now and not put this over to the next Congress."
Sen. Mark Dayton (D., Minn.), provided some emotional fireworks at the three-hour hearing by contending that the commission's report, which provides a dramatic minute-by-minute narrative of what happened on Sept. 11., shows "unbelievable negligence" on the part of top officials, who then tried to cover it up.
"NORAD [the North American Air Defense Command] lied to the American people, they lied to Congress, and they lied to your commission," Mr. Dayton said.
"We can set up all the organizations we want, but they won't be worth an Enron pension if the people responsible lie to us," Mr. Dayton said, referring to a recent financial scandal involving top officials of the Enron Corp.
Some other committee members expressed concern about the commission's recommendation to centralize intelligence functions in the President's executive office, warning that it could lead to political abuses like the Iran-Contra and Watergate scandals.
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), said a "high priority should be placed on objective and independent intelligence analysis."
Mr. Hamilton agreed that the separation of policy and intelligence is important, adding that the commission has recommended creating a new office in the White House to guard against "excess politicization" of intelligence information.
"The concentration of authority is always worrisome. But I do not think our recommendations would fundamentally change the balance of power," Mr. Hamilton said. "There is no magic solution here. Every move we make has some advantages and disadvantages.
"We think the advantages of number one, sharing information [among intelligence agencies] and number two, having someone in charge of managing that information is critical, and we don't have that today."
Sen.George Voinovich (R., Ohio), said he is focused on ensuring that the United States can recruit the people it needs to build up the nation's intelligence capabilities. Although the commission members have said they don't expect their recommendations to cost much money, Mr. Voinovich disagreed.
"I think it will cost a lot of money if we staff these agencies with the right people with the right skills and knowledge," he said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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