Are we safer today?

Two years ago, we and our colleagues issued a report card to assess the U.S. government’s progress on the bipartisan recommendations in the 9/11 commission report. We concluded that the nation was not safe enough. Our judgment remains the same today: We still lack a sense of urgency in the face of grave danger.

The U.S. homeland confronts a “persistent and evolving terrorist threat,” especially from al-Qaida, according to a National Intelligence Estimate in July. Six years after the attacks, in the wake of a series of ambitious reforms carried out by dedicated officials, how is it possible that the threat remains so dire?

The answer stems from a mixed record of reform, a lack of focus and a resilient foe. Progress at home – in our ability to detect, prevent and respond to terrorist attacks – has been difficult, incomplete and slow, but it has been real. Outside our borders, however, the threat of failure looms. We face a rising tide of radicalization and rage in the Muslim world – a trend to which our own actions have contributed. The enduring threat is not Osama bin Laden but young Muslims with no jobs and no hope, who are angry with their own governments and increasingly see the United States as an enemy of Islam.

Four years ago, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously asked his advisers: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

The answer is no.

U.S. foreign policy has not stemmed the rising tide of extremism in the Muslim world. In July 2004, the commission recommended putting foreign policy at the center of our counterterrorism efforts. Instead, we have lost ground.

Our report warned that it was imperative to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries. But inside Pakistan, al-Qaida “has protected or regenerated key elements of its homeland attack capability,” according to the National Intelligence Estimate. The chief threat to Afghanistan’s young democracy comes from across the Pakistani border, from the resurgent Taliban. Pakistan should take the lead in closing Taliban camps and rooting out al-Qaida. But the United States must act if Pakistan will not.

‘Opportunity and hope’

We are also failing in the struggle of ideas. We have not been persuasive in enlisting the energy and sympathy of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims against the extremist threat. That is not because of who we are: Polling data consistently show strong support in the Muslim world for American values, including our political system and respect for human rights, liberty and equality. Rather, U.S. policy choices have undermined support.

No word is more poisonous to the reputation of the United States than Guantanamo. Fundamental justice requires a fair legal process before the U.S. government detains people for significant periods of time, and the president and Congress have not provided one. Guantanamo Bay should be closed now. The 9/11 commission recommended developing a “coalition approach” for the detention and treatment of terrorists – a policy that would be legally sustainable, internationally viable and far better for U.S. credibility.

Moreover, no question inflames public opinion in the Muslim world more than the Arab-Israeli dispute. To empower Muslim moderates, we must take away the extremists’ most potent grievance: the charge that the United States does not care about the Palestinians. A vigorous diplomatic effort, with the visible, active support of the president, would bolster America’s prestige and influence – and offer the best prospect for Israel’s long-term security.

And finally, no conflict drains more time, attention, blood, treasure and support from our worldwide counterterrorism efforts than the war in Iraq. It has become a powerful recruiting and training tool for al-Qaida.

Beyond all our problems in the Muslim world, we must not neglect the most dangerous threat of all. The 9/11 commission urged a “maximum effort” to prevent the nightmare scenario: a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists.

The recent National Intelligence Estimate says that al-Qaida will continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and that it would not hesitate to use them. But our response to the threat of nuclear terrorism has been lip service and little action. The FY 2008 budget request for programs to control nuclear warheads, materials and expertise is a 15 percent real cut from the levels two years ago. We are in dire need of leadership, resources and sustained diplomacy to secure the world’s loose nuclear materials.

President Bush needs to knock heads and force action.

Military power is essential to our security, but if the only tool is a hammer, pretty soon every problem looks like a nail. We must use all the tools of U.S. power – including foreign aid, educational assistance and vigorous public diplomacy that emphasizes scholarship, libraries and exchange programs – to shape a Middle East and a Muslim world that are less hostile to our interests and values.

America’s long-term security relies on being viewed not as a threat but as a source of opportunity and hope.

‘Long way to go’

When it comes to transportation security – the failure so basic to 9/11 – we have seen some successes. For example, the Terrorist Screening Center, a football-field-size room filled with a giant electronic board and dozens of experts, tracks the flight manifests of 2,500 international flights arriving in the United States each day.

But the prescreening of passengers is still left to the airlines, which lack access to complete watch lists of suspected terrorists. Congress mandated national standards for secure driver’s licenses but has not given states the money to make it happen.

Moreover, technological improvement has been far too slow. A pilot program of high-tech explosive-detecting “puffer devices” at airports is of doubtful effectiveness and has been delayed indefinitely. Advanced baggage-screening systems will not be in place until 2024.

That timeline may work for our grandchildren, but it won’t work for us.

Nor will the pace of efforts to prepare the country to respond to future attacks. Congress passed a better formula for distributing federal homeland-security grants to the states on the basis of risk and vulnerability, rather than pork and politics. But the new law still allows the broadcast industry until February 2009 to hand over the prime slice of the broadcast spectrum that police and firefighters need to beam radio messages through concrete and steel.

Disaster could well strike before then.

We also lack a legal framework for fighting terrorism without sacrificing civil liberties. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board created in response to our recommendations has been missing in action. The board has raised no objections to wiretaps without warrants and to troubling detention and interrogation practices. It even let the White House edit its annual report.

Now strengthened by a new law, the board must become a firm, public voice in support of civil liberties.

Finally, there’s the question of Congress. Three years ago, we said that strengthening congressional oversight of counterterrorism was among the most difficult and important of our recommendations. Congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence must be robust and effective. It is not. Three years ago, the 9/11 commission noted that the Department of Homeland Security reported to 88 congressional committees and subcommittees – a major drain on senior management and a source of contradictory guidance. After halfhearted reforms followed by steps backward, that number is now 86.

Those are just the main items on our list of concerns. Six years later, we are safer in a narrow sense: We have not been attacked, and our defenses are better. But we have become distracted and complacent. We call on the presidential candidates to spell out how they would organize their administrations and act urgently to address the threat. And we call on ordinary citizens to demand more leadership from our elected representatives.

The terrible losses our country suffered on 9/11 should have catalyzed efforts to create an America that is safer, stronger and wiser. We still have a long way to go.

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton are the former chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission.
We are in dire need of leadership, resources and sustained diplomacy to secure the world’s nuclear materials. President Bush needs to knock heads and force action.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.