Democrats seek to fulfil US security pledges

  • The victorious Democrats have pledged to enact all the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission soon after the 110th session of Congress convenes.
  • It is unclear whether implementing all or most of the recommendations of the Commission is either feasible or advisable.
  • Political considerations will also delay, if not prevent, implementation of many of the proposed 9/11 reforms.

The final report of the 9/11 Commission, published in 2004, offered a series of recommendations on how to improve US foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence processes in order to avert further major terrorist attacks such as those that occurred in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

After the release of the recommendations, former members of the commission set up the privately funded 9/11 Public Discourse Project (PDP) with the aim of assessing and motivating progress in implementing the commission's recommendations. Besides issuing written evaluations, the PDP held a number of open meetings in Washington and other locations to encourage public activism in support of the commission's proposed recommendations.

The PDP issued a 'final report card' in December 2005 assessing the progress the US had made in implementing these reforms. Although it praised the administration for enacting several important changes, it faulted slow progress in other areas.

During the recently concluded session of Congress, influential Democrats proposed legislation seeking to enact an alternative homeland security agenda to that adopted by the Republican-dominated House, Senate and executive branch. The most important of these Bills was the Ensuring the Implementation of the 9/11 Commission Report Act, which takes the PDP report card into account, unlike the legislation already generated by the commission's recommendations.

Neglecting homeland security?

Another important indication of how the new congress might manage homeland security comes from To Secure America: The 9/11 Commission's Homeland Security Recommendations, published in July 2006, which offered a pre-election blueprint for how the Democrats said they would proceed with the 9/11 Commission recommendations if they regained control of Congress.

During the election campaigns, Democratic publications attacked the Republicans and the Bush administration for 'neglecting' homeland security by failing to adopt all the 9/11 Commission recommendations. For example, on 27 September 2006, the Offices of the House and Senate Democratic Leaders issued a pamphlet that asserted: "Five years after 9/11, our nation is not as safe as it should be. The Bush administration and the Rubber Stamp Republicans have failed to do an adequate job at protecting Americans at home and abroad. Glaring deficiencies exist in our homeland security... the Bush administration and the Republican Congress have failed to pass or implement all of the recommendations for homeland security of the independent and bipartisan 9/11 Commission."

Now that the Democrats have achieved majority status in both houses of Congress, they are likely to enact many of these past proposals into law when the 110th Congress comes into session. As Congress opened, some Democrats have advocated implementing all 9/11 Commission recommendations in one comprehensive piece of legislation.

During the election campaign, for example, then house minority leader (and now speaker) representative Nancy Pelosi wrote that the Democrats "have proposed a plan to address existing security weaknesses and establish a comprehensive strategy for homeland security". She added: "We can begin by immediately implementing of all the 9/11 Commission's recommendations."

Washington realities

A variety of factors, such as internal divisions among the Democrats, will make it difficult to implement the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations, at least during the opening weeks of Congress.

Democrats representing large metropolitan areas such as New York and Washington strongly support awarding homeland security grants only on the basis of actual measured risk. In contrast, Democrats representing rural districts and other areas not considered likely terrorist targets favour providing every region a "minimum level of support".

Democratic deficit hawks, who want to return to the Clinton era of budget surpluses, could resist implementing many recommendations that would require substantial additional funding from Congress. Technical limitations might also prevent the rapid achievement of some of the commission's recommendations. For example, restructuring the complex network of interlinked immigration databases - often created for different purposes and managed by different US government agencies - into a comprehensive and integrated entry and exit screening system at all US land ports of entry will require considerable time. Technical breakthroughs will also be necessary to develop effective radiation screening equipment for all cargo containers entering US seaports.

According to the US Government Accountability Office, currently available systems are too costly and susceptible to a range of operational problems.

Furthermore, in Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, former commission co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton acknowledge that many of their original recommendations concerning US foreign policy "will take many years, and cannot be accomplished by an act of Congress". Although the PDP nevertheless reaffirmed its exhortations to promote political reform and improve US relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, the members of Congress have generally contented themselves with issuing general "sense of the Congress" resolutions in these areas, which many consider a primary executive branch responsibility.

Conversely, some of the original 9/11 Commission members appear to have lost interest in enacting some of their original recommendations. For instance, neither the PDP nor the Ensuring Implementation of the 9/11 Commission Report Act has sought to implement the 9/11 Commission's proposal that "lead responsibility for directing and executing paramilitary operations, whether clandestine or covert, should shift to the Department of Defense".

The 9/11 Commission recommendations could also be criticised for being too specific: they were specifically designed to prevent attacks such as those on 11 September 2001.

Finally, any plans to reorganise and streamline the jurisdiction of Congressional committees will need to overcome potential resistance on the part of their newly empowered Democratic committee chairs. For example, a Bill sponsored in the most recent session of Congress by representatives Christopher Shays (Republican) and Carolyn Maloney (Democrats) would give the House Committee on Homeland Security exclusive jurisdiction over issues relating to the Department of Homeland Security, which would effectively reduce the oversight authority of the House Committee on Transportation and


This same Bill would award the House Committee on Intelligence exclusive authority over intelligence matters, including those involving the Department of Defense (which currently falls under the purview of the House Committee on Armed Services). Pelosi has announced she would give the House Intelligence Committee authority to oversee the budgets (now the responsibility of a House Appropriations subcommittee) as well as the operations of the intelligence agencies.

These jurisdictional issues could extend even further. Pelosi's plans to reform the Congressional earmarking process could bestow considerable influence on the subcommittee chairs of the House Committee on appropriations, including the Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Furthermore, Senator Joe Lieberman has become head of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It is not clear how he will relate with his former party colleagues, many of whom campaigned against him in the 2006 general election, now that he has become a Democratic independent.

Representative Bennie Thompson (Democrats), who will become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told reporters there would still be some split jurisdiction, but insisted that Democrats "can make it work". These complications rightly led Kean and Hamilton to call the task of restructuring congressional oversight of homeland security issues both "the most difficult and the most important".

Future probabilities

For all these reasons, the new Congress is less likely to implement rapidly and completely all remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations than to selectively increase funding and emphasis among various homeland security programmes. Despite the Democratic campaign statements, certain influential Democrats - including Thompson - have indicated they would accept a less than total enactment of all 9/11 recommendations. Thompson says: "On some of the more controversial issues of cargo screening and other things, I think we can work out a compromise."

The new Congress will probably also hold more oversight hearings on homeland security issues. Enactment of the Ensuring Implementation of the 9/11 Commission Report Act would encourage this focus on oversight hearings.

In fact, most of the specific provisions contained in earlier legislation simply require the executive branch to offer a variety of reports to Congress, typically on a monthly basis, on its progress in implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations. For example, the Secretary of Homeland Security must report on the status of the Incident Command System, the national critical infrastructure risk and vulnerabilities assessment, and international co-operation on border and travel document security. Similarly, the Comptroller General must report on private sector preparedness, federal first responder training programmes and efforts to consolidate the nation's numerous terrorist watch lists.

What Congress will do with all these reports remains unclear. Some members already pay little attention to many of the information documents they already receive from the US Department of Defense. If these monitoring structures and reports were genuinely needed to provide vital information, then perhaps it would make most sense to delay proposing specific legislative solutions until this data becomes available.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

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