9/11 panel co-chair: Urgents steps needed on security
War, domestic problems distracting leaders, Hamilton says
Ex-Rep. Lee Hamilton said the inability of first reponders to communicate via radio is "approaching the scandalous."
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(CNN) -- The former 9/11 commission on Monday gave poor grades to the federal government in a report card on its progress in implementing reforms the panel recommended last year.
Before the report was released, CNN anchor Miles O'Brien talked Monday to former Rep. Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project.
O'BRIEN: I know you don't want to share with us the specific grades yet until your release, steal your own thunder, if you will, but let's go back to what has been the previous evaluations and sort of give us a sense if you feel there's been progress.
The first issue -- and this comes up so many times -- is radio capabilities: the ability of police and fire and multi-jurisdictions all to talk to each other, which is so crucial whether it's the 9/11 attacks or, for that matter, Hurricane Katrina. Has the government made progress on this front?
HAMILTON: No. It is approaching the scandalous, I think, that our first responders four years after 9/11 are not able to communicate with one another when they reach the scene of a disaster.
There is a bill pending now in the Congress that would take steps in the right direction. I hope that bill will be passed in the next few days, next few weeks. But even if it is passed, it has a provision in it that says that this radio spectrum would not become available to the first responders until 2009. That's much too long a time to wait.
O'BRIEN: That is awfully slow progress. I wouldn't even call that progress. That's probably the wrong term.
Is this just -- is it a matter of money? It seems like a situation that can be dealt with by just getting -- clearing off some spectrum, as you say, making sure that these -- all these authorities have the radios.
HAMILTON: Well, it's a complicated technical matter, I'm informed. Likewise, of course, every bit of that radio spectrum is enormously valuable, a valuable piece of property. So it's not easy to work it through.
O'BRIEN: Yes, but wait. This is the country -- we sent a man to the moon. And it's going to take us until 2009 to have our police and fire talk to each other?
HAMILTON: Well, I very much agree with you. I think this priority is so clear, it's a no-brainer in terms of being prepared for a disaster. We ought to do it immediately.
O'BRIEN: All right. Let's talk about nonproliferation. That's a big issue, and it's an issue we don't talk about on a day-to-day basis. But it lurks, and that is the whole notion of keeping these atomic stockpiles secure, the possibility that there would be people out there who might be selling this material on the black market.
When last we checked in, insufficient progress was the grade. Any improvement since then?
HAMILTON: Well, I think some improvement, but we really need to put this at the very top of our priority. Not because a nuclear attack is the most likely, but because the consequences would be by far the most devastating.
So we need to give this the highest priority in terms of homeland protection. And that is to secure as many of these nuclear materials across the world as we possibly can.
It will take more funding. It will take more political leadership. It will take the removal of some restrictions that are now in the legislation. But we have to get serious about this because, as the president has said, it is the No. 1 national security problem.
O'BRIEN: You do have agreement from the president on that, as far as the priority goes, anyway.
HAMILTON: We do indeed.
O'BRIEN: Anyway, now, the Transportation Security Administration, when last we checked in with your group, minimal progress was the verdict there on detecting -- specifically, the issue is explosives. Has the TSA improved? And as we say this, we just saw the TSA modify its stance on sharp objects, scissors and the like, allowing certain sizes of them to be allowed.
You could also address that -- whether you think that's wise.
HAMILTON: Well, keep in mind that the terrorists were very sophisticated on 9/11. They knew they could get on that airplane with a 4-inch blade knife, not with a 6- or an 8-inch blade knife. They know what our rules are.
Now, one of the things we said in the report was that the TSA should act on the basis of an assessment of risks. I worry more about the explosives in the cargo than I do about matters that -- items that may be brought upon the airplane itself.
I don't really make a judgment about the scissors because I don't know that much about them, although I might say I have some, I guess, kind of skepticism about it. But I think the major focus should be on stopping containers getting into the cargo hold of an airplane that might have explosives. And therefore, you have to accelerate, greatly accelerate detection equipment.
O'BRIEN: Final quick thought, Mr. Hamilton. Why -- why no sense of urgency here? Why this bureaucratic inertia?
HAMILTON: I just think there are so many problems on the national agenda. We're fighting three wars -- in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terror, or one war with three fronts, if you want. We've got all kind of domestic problems. It's very tough for policymakers to sustain the priority for homeland security.
And what we're simply saying is in our report, we've got to get much more urgent about homeland security protection.
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