This country is more at risk to terrorism today than it was last week.
There's one reason why: the 9/11 organization run by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton has gone out of business. Why does this make us less safe? There is now absolutely no independent scrutiny of the nation's counter-terrorism programs, policies and agencies that has clout, expertise, resources, institutional knowledge, brains and guts.
What about the United States Congress? Fair question. Congress is part of the problem. Repeat: Congress is part of the problem. The upper and lower bodies desperately need a babysitter; thanks to partisanship and pettiness, Congress has amply proved it cannot be a very effective watchdog of the rest of the government's anti-terror apparatus, much less the sole watchdog, as it has become this week.
On Monday, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project issued its "Final Report on 9/11 Commission Recommendations." The report made some news (not a ton: page A22 in The New York Times). The headline, of course, was the bad marks received by most counter-terrorism initiatives. Only one program received an "A" (cutting off terrorist financing); there were four "F's" and 12 "D's." It was a concise, businesslike update – frustrating, but not depressing.
That wasn't the important story, however.
The real headline is that Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton have shuttered their operation.
On July 22, 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States issued a famous, book-like autopsy on the events of 9/11. On August 21, in accordance with the statute that created the commission, it dissolved as a government entity. But the ten members, five Republicans and five Democrats, weren't done. They re-formed as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project (bad name, I wish they had called me), got funding from some fine foundations and kept working. They issued more reports, cajoled Congress, waged a public education campaign and the ten commissioners served as high-profile credible advocates and experts. This week's report card was their final act.
There was only one proper response from people in government to the report card: "We'll try to do better and the government ought to properly fund your continued good works."
You'll be shocked, shocked to learn that was not how your Republicans and your Democrats in our nation's capitol reacted. The administration never liked the 9/11 commission in the first place, fought it every step of the way, withheld documents and important information and tried to delegitimize it. So after getting a terrible report card Monday, the White House issued a fact sheet and happily watched Kean and Hamilton ride out of Dodge.
The top Democrats pointed fingers. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi ("Knee"): "an indictment of continued failure by the administration"; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid ("Jerk"): "an 'F' is too high a grade for the Bush White House and Washington Republicans." How helpful, how noble: I feel safer, don't you?
One of the things Democrats do these days is to totally absolve themselves from anything Congress does that isn't in their self-interest on the grounds that they do not control both chambers. Well, they did control the Senate for some of the post-9/11 period. And they do have power and votes. They might choose to let themselves off the hook, but the voters haven't and probably won't.
So no one in Congress ought to be complacent about the grades they got. The 9/11 gang gave Congress a "D" for updating its oversight processing, noting the intelligence still don't have enough clout because of the committees that control the purse and the pork.
More importantly, Congress is still not dishing out homeland security money to states and cities in a rational way. Most of the money is doled out evenly by state so that Wyoming gets twice as much per person than New York; Memphis will get as much money for port security as New York and New Jersey. Instead, the money is supposed be allocated based on a coherent national threat assessment plan; one problem – that long-promised plan has never been completed.
All this is the easy stuff to monitor – the information is public. What about the secret stuff? Who is going to keep track? Two understaffed, partisan intelligence committees in Congress? Some experts in think tanks who don't have security clearances or subpoena power? The 100 or so beat reporters in the country who have real expertise and real resources behind them?
As I understand it, we are at war in Iraq in order to make America safer from terrorism. People die every day there and argue bitterly every day here. Yet everyone agrees that Iraq is but one front in the war on terror. Now we've lost the last organization capable of finding out what is happening on all those others fronts and then loudly telling the public about it.
The faculty has flunked the class and closed the school.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer