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Sept. 11 Commission Evaluates Progress


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Almost one year after they made their recommendations, members of the 9-11 Commission don't want us to forget. Their best-selling report made more than 40 proposals for avoiding future attacks. They stressed the need for quick action, and today former commission members start a series of discussions on what's happened so far. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

When the 9-11 Commission released its findings last July, Chairman Tom Kean had this announcement.

Former Governor TOM KEAN (Chairman, 9-11 Commission): All 10 of us have decided to keep in touch and continue to work as a group long after our charter goes out of existence, so we agreed to meet in a year to determine our progress.

FESSLER: And true to their word, the five Republican and five Democratic commissioners have pressed ahead, determined to avoid the fate of so many panels: obscurity. They've lobbied Congress, given speeches and formed a non-profit group to monitor progress. This summer they'll hold eight panel discussions on topics such as reforming the intelligence community, guarding against weapons of mass destruction and securing the nation's borders. They want to see what's been accomplished.

Former Representative LEE HAMILTON (Vice Chairman, 9-11 Commission): The truthful answer probably is, we're making progress in some places and not in others.

FESSLER: Lee Hamilton was vice chairman of the commission. He says there's been lots of activity in the past year.

Mr. HAMILTON: But we're trying to get a better handle on that. We're trying to assess what's been done. We're trying to understand the capabilities of the CIA, the capabilities of the FBI, the capabilities of the border control people.

FESSLER: He says the commissioners are most concerned about what hasn't been accomplished and hope they can prod Congress and the administration to act. For example, little has been done on proposals that Congress reorganize itself so it has better oversight over intelligence matters, or that the US make a greater effort to improve relations with the Muslim world. Hamilton says the former commissioners will also look at progress on information sharing.

Mr. HAMILTON: We had any number of meetings with the FBI. They told us they were getting their computer systems into shape. Then we learned a few weeks ago that they've spent $150 million to upgrade their computer system and has, as the director said, virtually nothing to show for it.

FESSLER: But what clout the former commissioners now have is unclear. They had their biggest impact last year when their report came out in the heat of a presidential campaign. Congress and the administration reacted quickly, enacting a key proposal: creation of an office to coordinate all US intelligence activities. But there's some concern even this far-reaching change might not address the root of the problem. Fred Hitz was CIA inspector-general in the 1990s.

Mr. FRED HITZ (Former CIA Inspector-General): I fear that in the way of Washington, the back-and-forth that will take place between the director of national intelligence and the 15 constituent intelligence agencies to figure out roles and missions will become the preoccupying force.

FESSLER: Instead of what many think is the more immediate task of getting better human intelligence, hiring more analysts with the language and cultural skills needed to understand the terrorist threat. Hitz notes that the new intelligence director, John Negroponte, has just assumed office.

Mr. HITZ: It's pretty early to get any meaningful kind of status report as to what the recommendations have meant.

FESSLER: But Hamilton says commission members want to make sure the new director has the authority he needs. He says there are already signs that other agencies are trying to chip away at his power. The former commissioners will also review efforts to tighten security at seaports and airports. These operations are overseen by new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who's conducting a review of his own. Last week Chertoff inspected new explosive detection equipment at Los Angeles International Airport.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security Department): We have a very safe air transportation system. Obviously we can continue to refine it, not only to make it safer, but to make it easier and more convenient.

FESSLER: Hamilton says agencies can point to lots of steps they've taken to improve security. He says the question is, are they effective? The former commissioners plan to issue a report card around September 11th, the fourth anniversary of the attacks. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.

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