Congressional oversight of intelligence and counterterrorism is "dysfunctional" and "the American people will not get the security they want and need" without far-reaching reforms of the outmoded committee system, according to the report of the Sept. 11 commission.
The report offers a broad series of recommendations, including the establishment of greatly strengthened intelligence committees with unique powers to set policy and allocate funds, the creation of permanent committees on homeland security, and the publication of the hitherto secret figure on annual intelligence spending.
"Tinkering with the existing system is not sufficient," the commission wrote as it parceled out to Congress a fair measure of responsibility for the failures in law enforcement and intelligence preceding the catastrophic attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. "Our essential message is: the intelligence committees cannot carry out their oversight function unless they are made stronger and thereby have both clear responsibility and accountability for that oversight."
Earlier blue-ribbon reports criticized Congress for its lax oversight, but the 9/11 commission offers the most detailed and scathing assessment yet. Senior members of the House and Senate quickly promised speedy consideration of the proposals while acknowledging that many of the reform recommendations will encounter resistance, as they clash with institutional traditions or the interests of turf-conscious lawmakers.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-author of the legislation creating the commission, declared that "delay was the enemy." McCain and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) urged congressional leaders to call a special session after the November elections to begin considering the commission's recommendations.
But, speaking a news conference attended by families of 9/11 victims and the chairman and vice chairman of the commission, McCain noted that the proposal to create either a House-Senate intelligence committee or strengthened intelligence committees in the separate chambers "is going to meet with significant institutional resistance because you're going to be removing somebody's turf."
At a news conference with the theme "Terror on the Run," House GOP leaders largely ignored the 9/11 commission's recommendations and focused instead on the achievements of the Bush administration and of the GOP-controlled Congress in fighting the terrorism threat.
"We haven't endorsed any recommendations," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). He added: "We're not going to rush through anything."
Few in Congress disagree that there are serious problems with the oversight of counterterrorism and intelligence. Responsibility for oversight has been granted to dozens of committees and subcommittees whose jurisdictions overlap and conflict, often resulting in confusion and gridlock.
The 9/11 panel noted that officials from the Department of Homeland Security now appear before 88 congressional panels. In the House, the department is overseen by a committee that does not have permanent status. In the Senate, there is no such dedicated oversight panel. "One expert witness . . . told us that this is perhaps the single largest obstacle impeding the department's successful development," the report stated.
As if to underline the warnings contained in the commission report, homeland security legislation in the House was stalled this week by partisan politics. Four House committees were involved in drafting final legislation governing the funding of first responders.
In the area of intelligence, the writing of the annual budget is divided among the intelligence committees, armed services committees and appropriations committees. Congressional rules that -- among other things -- limit the terms of intelligence committee members to six years in the House and eight years in the Senate weaken the committees' "power, influence and sustained capability," according to the report of the 9/11 commission.
Membership on the intelligence panels is not generally coveted, in part because much of the work is done in secrecy. "Members get nothing from being on those panels in terms of public recognition," and as a result they often apply themselves to the work only sporadically, according to a former House Democratic aide.
To strengthen the committees, the 9/11 commission proposed a number of changes, including giving the committees more authority over a unified intelligence budget whose total size would become a matter of public record for the first time, rather than hidden in the budget of the Defense Department. Details of the budget would continue to be classified.
"Having the figure public should increase pressure to get efficiencies, particularly in the big technical programs" such as satellite reconnaissance, said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel.
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.