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Demos facing 9/11 challenges

Implementing panel recommendations won’t prove easy

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WASHINGTON — Democrats poised to take control of Congress say they'll work to implement the unfinished business the 9/11 Commission recommended to better protect America from terrorists. But it won't be easy.

Much of what the commission proposed has been accomplished, at least in some measure. And many other proposals won't get through because they're either too expensive or face stiff political opposition.

Intelligence institutions were reorganized, some terrorist financing has been disrupted and planning for air defense of the United States has been improved. Those were key elements of the program the Sept. 11 Commission said must be instituted for America.

Yet, with Democrats eyeing the 2008 presidential election and eager to show they're strong on security issues, analysts say there are no still-lingering proposals that can easily be enacted into law.

"I don't think there's a lot more there," said James Carafano, homeland security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-oriented Washington think tank. "I think we're done."

The commission in July 2004 made 41 sweeping recommendations to prevent another devastating terrorist attack.

A third of the recommendations urged tighter domestic security and improved emergency response. Another third called for reform of intelligence-gathering and congressional oversight. The rest involved foreign policy issues and nuclear nonproliferation.

A year and a half after issuing the recommendations, the commission reconvened and announced that many of its recommendations had not been adequately addressed.

Meeting almost a year ago, the panel's members handed out failing grades to the government, giving an "F," for example, to improving airline passenger screening and homeland security spending for cities considered most at risk of attack.

Democrats had been harping on many of the same issues.

"We already know these vulnerabilities exist, and we can't wait till 2008 to deal with them," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is in line to become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The Transportation Security Administration, acting after an alleged plot was discovered last summer to blow up airliners heading to the United States from Britain, severely restricted the amount of liquids that can be carried onto planes to reduce the threat posed by liquid explosives.

Federal aid to support homeland security enhancements also was a key point, but disbursement of money to the states for this purpose has been subject to the same kind of pork-barrel politics that plagues many kinds of government assistance.

One of the most difficult but important remaining recommendations is for stepping up safeguards on loose nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists.

House Democrats pledged to fully fund those efforts but haven't said how much that will cost, and congressional researchers have concluded that political and technical obstacles stand in the way of eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

Another of the 9/11 Commission's concerns — that terrorists might smuggle a nuclear weapon using a shipping container into the United States — has been seen as a low-probability event, but nevertheless a scenario rife with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The commission recommended that the Homeland Security Department "intensify its efforts to identify, track and appropriately screen potentially dangerous cargo."

Congress passed two major port security bills since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Democrats complained that neither provided enough money.

Now, House Democrats say they will set deadlines to screen 100 percent of cargo containers that enter ports and install radiation monitors at all ports of entry.

The shipping industry and many Republicans argue that inspecting every container would shut down global shipping overnight.

Thompson said he wants to tighten security for mass transit and railroads, another 9/11 Commission recommendation. He wants to bring spending for mass transit and rail security more on a par with what is spent on security for air travel.

"We spend somewhere between $8 and $9 per passenger on air, and somewhere between 1 and 2 cents per passenger on rail," Thompson said. "And that's why in most areas a passenger can buy the ticket and get on the train ... and that's a vulnerability."

One problem for congressional Democrats in fulfilling their promise is that some of the commission's recommendations to change foreign policy — such as presenting a better U.S. image to the Islamic world, supporting Pakistan and reforming Saudi Arabia — don't fall under the purview of Congress.

These kinds of changes also are difficult to quickly assess for effectiveness.

Brian Jenkins, terrorism analyst with the RAND Corp. research firm, called such foreign policy initiatives "exhortations to do better."

"It's not a matter of something that you can tick off in a box," Jenkins said.

Lost in the controversy this fall over the treatment of terrorism-war detainees was the 9/11 Commission's endorsement of international detention standards for captured suspects. Allegations of prisoner abuse make it harder to build alliances to fight terrorism, the commission's report said.

In October, President Bush signed a law authorizing tough interrogation of enemy combatants; it also allows them to be detained indefinitely without being charged.

Democrats are likely to continue to try to overturn those provisions of the law.

While Congress created a National Counterterrorism Center and a director of national intelligence, a job now held by John Negroponte, the 9/11 Commission wanted oversight of Homeland Security consolidated in a single congressional committee. Members of Congress have shown little appetite for ceding their turf, however.

Some of the commission's recommendations face technical hurdles and public opposition. States, for example, are balking at the Real ID Act of 2005, which requires them to issue tamperproof drivers licenses.

"Americans are not wild about new identity documents," Jenkins said.

He estimated that only a handful of recommendations lend themselves to a legislative fix.

"The perception that there is a long list of unimplemented 9/11 recommendations is simply not accurate," he said.

Contributing: Beverly Lumpkin.