Four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government has failed to enact crucial homeland security reforms that could have saved lives and improved the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, according to a report to be issued today by former members of the Sept. 11 commission.
Local emergency officials are still unable to reliably communicate with one another during disasters, the federal government has no clear system of command and control for responding to a crisis, and authorities have faltered in enacting basic border controls designed to keep out terrorists, according to the report's findings, which commission members outlined in interviews.
A separate commission report released yesterday provided chilling details about the Federal Aviation Administration's assessment as early as 1998 that al Qaeda might try to fly a jet into a U.S. landmark.
"In 1998 and 1999, the FAA intelligence unit produced reports about the hijacking threat posed by [Osama] Bin Ladin and al Qaeda, including the possibility that the terrorist group might try to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark," according to the report, which was a new version of a more heavily edited document released earlier this year.
But, the report added, the FAA viewed the possibility as "unlikely" and a "last resort."
Thomas H. Kean (R), the former New Jersey governor who headed the panel that investigated the terrorist attacks, said the bungled response to Katrina laid bare how unprepared the nation remains for a catastrophic event, whether it is another terrorist strike or a natural disaster.
"This is not a terrorist incident, but it brings into play all of the same issues and shortcomings," Kean said. "What makes you mad is that it's the same things we saw on 9/11. Whoever is responsible for acting in these places hasn't acted. Are they going to do it now? What else has to happen for people to act?"
Lawmakers and the Bush administration are in the midst of a partisan debate over whether an independent panel akin to the Sept. 11 commission should be formed to study missteps that left tens of thousands in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast stranded without assistance after Katrina. More than 640 deaths have been confirmed from the Aug. 29 storm and its aftermath.
Congressional Republicans have proposed a special committee to investigate the Katrina response, but many Democrats support the idea of an independent commission. The Bush administration, which also resisted formation of the Sept. 11 panel, has signaled that it does not support a separate Katrina commission.
The Sept. 11 commission is technically disbanded and is now operating as the nonprofit 9/11 Public Discourse Project. It has held a series of hearings in recent months to examine the government's progress in enacting recommended reforms.
Congress and the Bush administration have embraced many of the major changes recommended by the Sept. 11 panel in its best-selling 2004 report, such as creation of an intelligence director to coordinate anti-terrorism and anti-espionage efforts.
But Kean and other commission officials fault Congress and the administration for proceeding too slowly on some changes and ignoring others altogether, including a recommendation that Congress restructure the way it handles oversight of homeland security issues. Today's findings will be the first of three reports to be issued in coming months, followed by an overall "report card" that will rank the government's progress at the end of the year.
Kean and other commission officials said the most serious oversights are those that might have helped in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
The commission's report will note that lawmakers, facing opposition from the broadcast industry, have not established a unified emergency communications system by dedicating a portion of the broadcast spectrum to medical and disaster responders.
As on Sept. 11, when malfunctioning radios contributed to deaths in the World Trade Center, public safety officials in New Orleans have reported widespread communications problems.
"The fact that Congress has chosen not to do something about this is a national scandal that has cost lives," Kean said.
Other shortcomings that will be highlighted by today's report include delays by the Department of Homeland Security in ranking potential transportation and infrastructure vulnerabilities, continuing confusion over the line of command to be followed in national emergencies, and sluggish efforts to track visitors entering and leaving the United States.
The panel's follow-up investigation also has found that only a few of the nation's 441 commercial airports have deployed equipment to check passengers for explosives, despite the continued threat of attack by suicide bombers.
"The White House and the Congress took off with the baton . . . but they haven't finished running the race," said commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "The fundamental job of the government is to protect and defend its citizens, and at this point the United States is still very vulnerable."