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Congressional reform and interoperability still plagued by systematic problems

Bipartisan Policy Center report says some post-9/11 recommendations haven't been implemented

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The twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center send smoke billowing across Manhattan's skyline.

Marty Lederhandler/AP file

Disorganized congressional oversight of national security and a disjointed emergency communications infrastructure — both subjects of investigations by iWatch News — continue to plague the federal government’s efforts to prevent another domestic terrorist attack, according to a new report.

The new study revisited recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan group tasked with analyzing government weaknesses exposed by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Authored by Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, who co-chaired the commission, the “Tenth Anniversary Score Card” was largely complimentary, but  gave the federal government failing marks in those two key areas, as well as on seven more of the panel’s 41 original recommendations.

New York City firefighters and police officers struggled to communicate with one another after planes hit the World Trade Center due to a lack of dedicated radio spectrum and differing technical standards. This lack of interoperability “led to needless loss of life” and could do so again in the case of another attack, said the report from the Bipartisan Policy Center, released at the beginning of September. More than 55,000 separate radio networks are currently used by the nation's police, fire, and rescue operations.

The commission had encouraged Congress to expedite and increase “assignment of radio spectrum for public safety purposes” when it released its original report on July 22, 2004. But programs designed to enhance interoperability lacked the funding and the staff they needed, iWatch News reported last year. Legislation to remedy the problem has also languished in Congress, with lawmakers fighting over exactly how to increase emergency responders’ bandwidth: Either by allocating it directly or putting it up for auction.

President Barack Obama called for spectrum to be allocated to public safety in his 2011 State of the Union address. While the Senate Commerce Committee agreed on a bill to do just that in June, the measure has yet to make it to the floor and no similar legislation has been introduced in the House.

The report card “supports the immediate allocation of… spectrum to public safety and the construction of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network.” It urges Congress to act with uncharacteristic swiftness “because we don’t know when the next attack or disaster will strike.”

Hamilton, Kean, and the other authors of the new report fear that the lack of congressional reform could hasten that eventuality. “When we issued our 2004 report, we believed that congressional oversight of the homeland security and intelligence functions of government was dysfunctional,” they wrote. “It still is.”

Attempts to make some sense of Department of Homeland Security oversight have been particularly fraught. DHS was cobbled together in 2002 from some 22 other agencies, many of which were supervised by separate congressional panels.

A 2004 bipartisan Senate resolution from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave the Governmental Affairs Committee most of the jurisdiction over the newly formed department. But then, “a parade of testy committee leaders used amendments to take back jurisdiction they would have relinquished under the resolutions original terms,” iWatch News reported in July 2009.

One staffer on the Governmental Affairs committee called it “by far the ugliest and the lowest point of my career on the Hill.”

The House created the permanent Homeland Security Committee, but it only has “fuzzy jurisdiction” over DHS, one congressional observer said in 2009.

The report card found that DHS oversight in both chambers of Congress has been claimed by more than 100 committees and subcommittees. The department provided more than 3,900 briefings and its officials testified more than 285 times in 2009 and 2010, numbers much higher than agencies of comparable size. “This amounted to thousands of hours of work, often duplicating efforts, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” it said.

As they did in the original report, Hamilton and Kean recommend “that Congress create a Joint Committee for Intelligence or create House and Senate committees with combined authorizing and appropriating powers.”