Commission warned Bush

But White House passed on recommendations by a bipartisan, Defense department-ordered commission on domestic terrorism.

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By Jake Tapper

Original Link: 
http://www.salon.com/politics/feature/2001/09/12/bush/

Sept. 12, 2001 | WASHINGTON -- They went to great pains not to sound as though they were telling the president "We told you so."

But on Wednesday, two former senators, the bipartisan co-chairs of a Defense Department-chartered commission on national security, spoke with something between frustration and regret about how White House officials failed to embrace any of the recommendations to prevent acts of domestic terrorism delivered earlier this year.

Bush administration officials told former Sens. Gary Hart, D-Colo., and Warren Rudman, R-N.H., that they preferred instead to put aside the recommendations issued in the January report by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. Instead, the White House announced in May that it would have Vice President Dick Cheney study the potential problem of domestic terrorism -- which the bipartisan group had already spent two and a half years studying -- while assigning responsibility for dealing with the issue to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, headed by former Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh.

The Hart-Rudman Commission had specifically recommended that the issue of terrorism was such a threat it needed far more than FEMA's attention.

Before the White House decided to go in its own direction, Congress seemed to be taking the commission's suggestions seriously, according to Hart and Rudman. "Frankly, the White House shut it down," Hart says. "The president said 'Please wait, we're going to turn this over to the vice president. We believe FEMA is competent to coordinate this effort.' And so Congress moved on to other things, like tax cuts and the issue of the day."

"We predicted it," Hart says of Tuesday's horrific events. "We said Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers -- that's a quote (from the commission's Phase One Report) from the fall of 1999."

On Tuesday, Hart says, as he sat watching TV coverage of the attacks, he experienced not just feelings of shock and horror, but also frustration. "I sat tearing my hair out," says the former two-term senator. "And still am."

Rudman generally agrees with Hart's assessment, but adds: "That's not to say that the administration was obstructing."

"They wanted to try something else, they wanted to put more responsibility with FEMA," Rudman says. "But they didn't get a chance to do very much" before terrorists struck on Tuesday.

The White House referred an inquiry to the National Security Council, which did not return a call for comment.

The bipartisan 14-member panel was put together in 1998 by then-President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to make sweeping strategic recommendations on how the United States could ensure its security in the 21st century.

In its Jan. 31 report, seven Democrats and seven Republicans unanimously approved 50 recommendations. Many of them addressed the point that, in the words of the commission's executive summary, "the combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the U.S. homeland to catastrophic attack."

"A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century," according to the report.

The commission recommended the formation of a Cabinet-level position to combat terrorism. The proposed National Homeland Security Agency director would have "responsibility for planning, coordinating, and integrating various U.S. government activities involved in homeland security," according to the commission's executive summary.

Other commission recommendations include having the proposed National Homeland Security Agency assume responsibilities now held by other agencies -- border patrol from the Justice Department, Coast Guard from the Transportation Department, customs from the Treasury Department, the National Domestic Preparedness Office from the FBI, cyber-security from the FBI and the Commerce Department. Additionally, the NHSA would take over FEMA, and let the "National Security Advisor and NSC staff return to their traditional role of coordinating national security activities and resist the temptation to become policymakers or operators."

The commission was supposed to disband after issuing the report Jan. 31, but Hart and the other commission members got a six-month extension to lobby for their recommendations. Hart says he spent 90 minutes with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and an hour with Secretary of State Colin Powell lobbying for the White House to devote more attention to the imminent dangers of terrorism and their specific, detailed recommendations for a major change in the way the federal government approaches terrorism. He and Rudman briefed National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on the commission's findings.

For a time, the commission seemed to be on a roll.

On April 3, before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Technology, Hart sounded a call of alarm, saying that an "urgent" need existed for a new national security strategy, with an emphasis on intelligence gathering.

"Good intelligence is the key to preventing attacks on the homeland," Hart said, arguing that the commission "urges that homeland security become one of the intelligence community's most important missions." The nation needed to embrace "homeland security as a primary national security mission." The Defense Department, for instance, "has placed its highest priority on preparing for major theater war" where it "should pay far more attention to the homeland security mission." Homeland security would be the main purpose of beefed-up National Guard units throughout the country.

A new strategy, new organizations like the National Homeland Security Agency -- which would pointedly "not be heavily centered in the Washington, D.C. area" -- would be formed to fulfill this mission, as well with the fallout should that mission fail. As the U.S. is now, the Phase III report stated, "its structures and strategies are fragmented and inadequate." Diplomacy was to be refocused on intelligence sharing about terrorist groups. Allies were to have their military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies work more closely with ours. Border security was to be beefed up.

More resources needed to be devoted to the new mission. "The Customs Service, the Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard are all on the verge of being overwhelmed by the mismatch between their growing duties and their mostly static resources," the report stated. Intelligence needed to focus not only on electronic surveillance but a renewed emphasis on human surveillance -- informants and spies -- "especially on terrorist groups covertly supported by states." As the threat was imminent, Congress and the president were urged to "start right away on implementing the recommendations put forth here."

Congress seemed interested in enacting many of the commission's recommendations. "We had a very good response from the Hill," Rudman says.

In March, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, introduced the National Homeland Security Agency Act. Other members of Congress -- Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., John Kyl, R-Ariz., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. -- talked about the issue, and these three and others began drafting legislation to enact some of the recommendations into law.

But in May, Bush announced his plan almost as if the Hart-Rudman Commission never existed, as if it hadn't spent millions of dollars, "consulting with experts, visiting 25 countries worldwide, really deliberating long and hard," as Hart describes it. Bush said in a statement that "numerous federal departments and agencies have programs to deal with the consequences of a potential use of a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon in the United States. But to maximize their effectiveness, these efforts need to be seamlessly integrated, harmonious and comprehensive." That, according to the president, should be done through FEMA, headed by Allbaugh, formerly Bush's gubernatorial chief of staff.

Bush also directed Cheney -- a man with a full plate, including supervision of the administration's energy plans and its dealings with Congress -- to supervise the development of a national counter-terrorism plan. Bush announced that Cheney and Allbaugh would review the issues and have recommendations for him by Oct. 1. The commission's report was seemingly put on the shelf.

Just last Thursday, Hart spoke with Rice again. "I told her that I and the others on the commission would do whatever we could to work with the vice president to move on this," Hart said. "She said she would pass on the message."

On Tuesday, Hart says he spent much of his time on the phone with the commission's executive director, Gen. Charles G. Boyd. "We agreed the thing we should not do is say, 'We told you so,'" Hart says. "And that's not what I'm trying to do here. Our focus needs to be: What do we do now?"

Of course, as a former senator, Hart well knows what happens to the recommendations of blue-chip panels. But he says he thought that the gravity of the issue -- and the comprehensiveness of the commission's task -- would prevent its reports from being ignored. After all, when then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen signed the charter for the 21st Century National Security Strategy Study, he charged its members to engage in "the most comprehensive security analysis" since the groundbreaking National Security Act of 1947, which created the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of Secretary of Defense, among other organizations.

Neither Hart nor Rudman claim that their recommendations, if enacted, would have necessarily prevented Tuesday's tragedy. "Had they adopted every recommendation we had put forward at that time I don't think it would have changed what happened," Rudman says. "There wasn't enough time to enact everything. But certainly I would hope they pay more attention now."

"Could this have been prevented?" Hart asks. "The answer is, 'We'll never know.' Possibly not." It was a struggle to convince President Clinton of the need for such a commission, Hart says. He urged Clinton to address this problem in '94 and '95, but Clinton didn't act until 1998, prompted by politics. "He saw Gingrich was about to do it, so he moved to collaborate," Hart says. "Seven years had gone by since the end of the Cold War. It could have been much sooner."

Rudman said that he "would not be critical of them [the Bush administration] this early because the bottom line is, a lot has to be done." The commission handed down its recommendations just eight and a half months ago, he said, and they'll take years to fully enact.

"On the other hand," Rudman said, "if two years go by and the same thing happens again, shame on everybody.

"I'm not pointing fingers," Rudman said. "I just want to see some results." He may get his wish. On Wednesday, Thornberry renewed his call for a National Homeland Security Agency. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the assistant majority leader, called for the formation of a federal counter-terrorism czar.

Three days ago, if asked to predict what the first major foreign terrorist attack on America soil would involve, Hart says he would have guessed small nuclear warheads simultaneously unleashed on three American cities. But, he says, "there wasn't doubt in anyone's mind on that commission" that something horrific would happen "probably sooner rather than later. We just didn't know how."

In addition to the Bush administration, Hart has another group that he wishes had paid the commission's suggestions more heed. "The national media didn't pay attention," Hart says. One senior reporter from a well-known publication told one of Hart's fellow commissioners, "This isn't important, none of this is ever going to happen," Hart says. "That's a direct quote."

Hart points out that while the New York Times mentioned the commission in a Wednesday story with the sub-headline "Years of Unheeded Alarms," that story was the first serious mention the Times itself had ever given the commission. The Times did not cover the commission's report in January, nor did it cover Hart's testimony in April, he points out. "We're in an age where we don't want to deal with serious issues, we want to deal with little boys pitching baseballs who might be 14 instead of 12."

Hart says he just shook his head when he saw a former Clinton administration Cabinet official on TV Tuesday calling for the formation of a commission to study the best way to combat terrorism. "If a former Cabinet officer didn't know, how could the average man on the street? I do hope the American people understand that somebody was paying attention."

In his April 3 testimony, Hart noted that "the prospect of mass casualty terrorism on American soil is growing sharply. That is because the will to terrorism and the ways to perpetrate it are proliferating and merging. We believe that, over the next quarter century, this danger will be one of the most difficult national security challenges facing the United States -- and the one we are least prepared to address." He urgently described the need for better human intelligence and not just electronic intelligence, "especially on terrorist groups covertly supported by states."

He's far from happy to have been proven correct. Both Hart and Rudman say with grim confidence that Tuesday's attacks are just the beginning. Maybe now, Rudman says, Congress, the White House, the media and the American people will realize how serious they were about their January report.

"Human nature is prevalent in government as well," Rudman says. "We tend not to do what we ought to do until we get hit between the eyes."
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