The intelligence community is awash in information and still struggles to understand how it can be fully utilized to fight terrorism. At the same time, the government has not done enough to protect American citizens from privacy intrusions and civil liberties abuses resulting from the collection of intelligence and surveillance by authorities. Those were among the conclusions offered May 19 by two influential politicians who led the panel charged with investigating the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, known as the 9/11 Commission.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and one-time Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton appeared together before the House Homeland Security Committee to offer their assessment of where the U.S. government stands in the war on terror. During testimony, they pointed out that the Obama Administration has allowed a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended by the commission to become “dormant” since no one has been appointed to fill its five seats.
Several policymakers including the House Homeland Security Committee’s chairman, Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, sent a letter to Obama in March complaining that even though budgets were established this year and last for the board, it’s still not conducting business. “For over two years,” they wrote, “the vision for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has not been realized. As new privacy and civil liberties issues emerge, such as the use of screening technologies and watchlisting procedures, it is imperative that the board be fully operational and evaluate and advise the executive branch on the privacy and civil liberties implications associated with such changes.”
The board was created in 2004, but a 2007 law made it an independent agency.
The White House says its vetting candidates and Republicans in Congress are responsible for filling two of them. But the Los Angeles Times in an April editorial nonetheless called the vacancies “an embarrassment.” According to Lee and Hamilton: “The balance between security and liberty will always be part of the struggle against terrorism. America must not sacrifice one for the other. … With the massive capacity to develop data on individuals, the board should fight to ensure that collection capabilities do not violate privacy and civil liberties.”
The pair’s testimony came amid newly released findings this week from the Senate Intelligence Committee that many of the same failures leading to the Sept. 11 attacks allowed a Nigerian man to board a flight headed to Detroit with explosives last Christmas. Despite the major overhaul of intelligence agencies and other changes that occurred government-wide after 9/11, authorities still suffered from “systemic failures” that led to them not identifying would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a threat.
The National Counterterrorism Center, created to be the primary office for analyzing terrorism intelligence, “was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions” and did not connect information the government possessed on Abdulmutallab. Elsewhere, the State Department did not revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa when it should have, he was not placed on appropriate watchlists and the CIA did not do enough to examine his background.
The testimony of Hamilton and Lee also addressed another of the 9/11 Commission’s key recommendations that has still not been implemented. Last year, our partners at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., reported that a confusing spread of nearly 90 different congressional committees and subcommittees had jurisdiction over homeland security requiring top officials to spend an inordinate amount of their time testifying rather than battling terrorists. But lawmakers haven’t seriously debated consolidating them and focusing oversight to make it more effective, in part because members of Congress don’t want to give up valuable political turf they control.
According to Lee and Hamilton:
Enduring fractured and overlapping committee jurisdictions on both sides of the Hill have left congressional oversight in an unsatisfactory state. [Department of Homeland Security] entities still report to dozens of separate committees hundreds of times per year, which constitutes a serious drain of time and resources for senior officials. Furthermore, the jurisdictional melee among the scores of congressional committees has led to conflicting and contradictory tasks and mandates for DHS. Without taking serious action, we fear this unworkable system could make the country less safe.