The Highest Priority on the National-Security Agenda

The 9 January House passage of legislation to implement most if not quite all of the remaining homeland-security proposals recommended by the “9/11 Commission” was politically meaningful in several respects. But many of the proposals are likely to be changed significantly before being enacted into law, and both Congress and the administration will be hard-pressed to find the money needed to fully fund the proposals that have not yet been carried out. The fact that the 9/11 recommendations received such a high, and early, priority from the House’s new Democratic leadership was an encouraging sign that homeland defense will receive greater and more positive attention from Congress for the foreseeable future than it has in the recent past. Moreover, the fact that scores of Republicans voted with the Democratic majority was a hopeful indication that future implementing legislation is likely not only to receive bipartisan support in the House but also to be approved by the Senate as well. 

On the other hand, many of the commission’s proposals that have not yet been implemented were put on hold for substantive political and/or practical reasons that are still valid. In its official “Final Report,” for example, issued four months prior to the 2004 national elections, the commission strongly recommended that several common-sense steps be taken to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Seventeen months later (on 5 December 2005) the commission members released an unofficial follow-up report pointing out that not one of its five border-security recommendations had been fully implemented to the degree needed to stop, much less reverse, the entry of “undocumented” foreigners into the United States. 

The second warning helped to publicize the problem, but had little practical effect. Both parties were divided internally between those who wanted a strong and fairly comprehensive immigration reform bill and those who insisted that provisions for “amnesty” and/or eventual citizenship be included for illegal immigrants already resident in the United States. President Bush did not use the word “amnesty” per se, but his several public statements on the subject seemed to lean toward a softer rather than harsher approach. The commission’s unofficial December 2005 report also included a helpful but politically embarrassing “score card” that noted a few “positive changes” – the appointment of a director of national intelligence, for Whether the new Democratic leaders will score higher than their GOP predecessors could be a major talking point during the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. example, and the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center – but also assigned failing or near-failing grades in other areas of homeland defense on which the commission had held public hearings throughout the country. 

The panel’s recommendation to “improve airline passenger pre-screening” received a failing grade, for example. So did the commission’s recommendations to “deify” the “overall intelligence budget,” to develop and implement “coalition standards for terrorist detention,” and to “allocate homeland-security funds” through use of a “risk-based” approach. The report card, which deplored “the lack of urgency” evidenced by the lack of progress in “fixing” the numerous problems the panel had addressed, accused (by implication) Congress as well as the president of jeopardizing the reforms needed because of their own “inertia and complacency.” Congress was controlled at that time by the Republican Party, of course. 

Whether the new Democratic leaders will score higher than their GOP predecessors could be a major talking point during the 2008 presidential and congressional elections. It could be that neither Congress, nor the president, nor the American people themselves, will have the final say on the subject. Collectively, albeit unwillingly, they might abdicate that responsibility to terrorists. That at least is the clear implication of the strongest language the members of the 9/11 Commission used in their December 2005 report: “Preventing terrorists from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] must be elevated above all other problems of national security.” Both on the score card and in its official Final Report, the commission called for “a maximum effort” to counter the WMD threat, and asserted that, because of “the potential for catastrophic destruction,” there is “simply no higher priority on the national-security agenda.” Regrettably, the actions taken by Congress and the president up to December 2005, Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chair Lee H. Hamilton said, “fall far short of what we need to do.” Whether or not the House passage on Tuesday 9 January 2007 of the “implementation” bill signals the start of a new era of vigorous legislative activity in the field of homeland security has yet to be determined – but the answer will be of transcendent importance to all of the American people.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



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