In February 2001, a bipartisan federal commission on which we served warned that terrorists would acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption. “Attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter-century,” the Hart-Rudman Commission said. “In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures.” We added: “Congress should rationalize its current committee structure so that it best serves U.S. national security objectives.”
We identified 50 ways to improve national security, none of which was implemented before 9/11. One recommendation — to create a single agency to deal with homeland security — was not acted on until a year and a half after those tragic attacks.
One particularly consequential recommendation has been altogether ignored. Congress has failed to “review its structure systematically in light of likely 21st century security challenges,” a critical step needed “to ensure both that important issues receive sufficient attention and oversight and the unnecessary duplication of effort by multiple committees is minimized.”
Put bluntly, congressional oversight of homeland security remains an organizational maze. Instead of doing what our group and the 9/11 Commission recommended, Congress has made matters worse. After the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, oversight was claimed by 79 committees and subcommittees, but that number has expanded to at least 108.
No major company could function with that kind of structure, and neither can the third-largest federal department. As former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, “When many voices speak, it’s like no voice speaks.”
Virtually everyone who has examined the matter agrees about the need to streamline congressional supervision of homeland security. Since the 9/11 Commission made it a central recommendation, reports from think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution have concurred, as did the Sunnylands-Aspen Institute task force, a group of national security experts that met last year and included 9/11 Commission Chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton.
Because Congress has spurned this chorus of qualified counsel, the country remains unprepared to thwart some of the same kinds of terrorist attacks that we warned about in the pre-9/11 days. Amid concerns about a cyberattack on the power grid, air-traffic control system or financial sector, the seven congressional committees that claim jurisdiction over cyber security can’t even agree on whether responsibility for the issue should reside in the Department of Homeland Security or elsewhere.
There are other areas of vulnerability. For example, when you fly on a major airline from a major airport, you, your shoes, laptop and luggage are screened by the Transportation Security Administration. But there isn’t necessarily such screening if you board a private jet at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, just a dozen miles from Manhattan, or any number of small airports across the United States. A potential hijacker could walk through the terminal straight to the plane. And as Adm. Thad Allen, a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, notes, when a small boat enters one of the harbors adjoining our nation’s cities, whether it be Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Galveston, Texas, or others, those responsible for national security can’t readily determine to whom it is registered or what is in its hold.
Nor are these means of carrying danger onto our shores the full extent of the problem. As former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who headed a commission on weapons of mass destruction from 2008 to 2010, noted in the Sunnylands-Aspen report, the list of biohazards, including substances that could kill before we become aware that they are in our air or water, hasn’t been prioritized.
Unlike most stories about Congress not working well, this isn’t a saga of left versus right, Republicans versus Democrats. Reports from across the political spectrum have described the status quo as “byzantine,” “wasteful” and “dysfunctional.” Republican-appointed Homeland Security Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff and Democrat-appointed Janet Napolitano have all indicated that fragmented oversight makes it more difficult for the department to do its job.
The reason for congressional inaction is as simple as it is sad. As noted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies/Business Executives for National Security task force, Congress has “protected prerogative and privilege at the expense of a rational, streamlined committee structure. The result is a Department of Homeland Security that is hamstrung by a system of congressional oversight that drains departmental energy and invites managerial circumvention.”
A refrain emerged after 9/11: Why hadn’t the media, Congress and the president paid more attention to the warnings and recommendations of the Hart-Rudman report?
To that question we would now add: Must the country suffer another devastating, potentially preventable attack before more of its turf-protecting elected representatives forgo “prerogative and privilege” for the sake of our nation’s security?
Gary Hart is a lawyer and former senator from Colorado; Norman Augustine, a retired aerospace executive, was undersecretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977.