No event in the last half-century has had a greater effect on American national security policy than the 9/11 attacks. Nine years after the 9/11 Commission recommended 41 actions to strengthen our national security, our country is still not as safe as it could and should be.
Though the vast majority of the recommendations have been followed, at least in part, Congress has not acted on one of our major proposals: to streamline the way it oversees homeland security.
In a cumbersome legacy of the pre-9/11 era, Congress oversees the Department of Homeland Security with a welter of overlapping committees and competing legislative proposals. The department was created in 2002 out of 22 agencies and departments. More than 100 congressional committees and subcommittees claim jurisdiction over it. This patchwork supervision results in near-paralysis and a lack of real accountability.
In a bipartisan report that we released Wednesday, as members of a task force of national security experts, former Homeland Security officials and former and current members of Congress, we argue that Congress must take a clearer, less complicated approach to supervision of national security.
In August, then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller warned that a cyberthreat will “equal or even eclipse the terrorist threat.” Yet the seven committees that claim jurisdiction haven’t been able to agree on whether the Department of Homeland Security or another agency should take primary responsibility for addressing the threat.
Last year, when a bill on cybersecurity from the House Homeland Security Committee competed with proposals from three other House committees, none passed both the House and the Senate. In April, a bill on cybersecurity intelligence sharing was passed by the House, but it has not been brought to a vote in the Senate, which is reportedly drafting its own bills in at least three committees.
When you fly on a major airline from a major airport, you are screened by the Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Because of insufficient federal supervision, that’s not necessarily so when you board a private jet at small airports. Likewise, a federal list of 75 biological threats hasn’t been properly prioritized, in part because Congress oversees the Department of Homeland Security in one committee and Health and Human Services in another.
This isn’t a partisan issue. The first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, a Republican appointee, raised concerns during his tenure about fragmented oversight, and the former homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, a Democratic appointee, complained that members of her staff were often “spending more time responding to Congressional requests and requirements than executing their mandated homeland security responsibilities.”
Congress, typically reluctant to give up its powers midterm, is unlikely to enact serious reform until 2015. In the meantime, members should accelerate homeland security legislation by placing time limits on committees’ consideration of Homeland Security bills. They also should set priorities for the department by passing an authorization bill, which Congress has never done.
Congress needs to reform the way it oversees homeland security and examine the department with tough and direct scrutiny. As we said in the 9/11 Commission report, unless Congress does its job, “the American people will not get the security they want and need.”
Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton were co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission. They wrote this for The New York Times.