9/11 Commission Recommendations On First Responder Network, Civil Liberties Unmet 10 Years After Attacks
NEW YORK -- On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Glen Klein, an officer with the New York Police Department's elite Emergency Service Unit, found himself at a command post just down the street from the World Trade Center, engulfed in dust from the collapse of the south tower.
Hundreds of firefighters and police officers remained in the burning north tower as responders on the ground struggled to reach them with urgent warnings to evacuate.
"It was like Armageddon on the radios," Klein, 53, said in an interview near his home on Long Island. "We couldn't get through."
NYPD helicopters hovering over the north tower observed fires raging on its top floors and advised commanders on the ground to immediately evacuate the building. Those transmissions successfully reached police officers in the tower -- but not firefighters, whose radios were not linked to the NYPD network. As police officers hurried downward, many firefighters lingered on low floors or continued to climb upward toward certain death.
"I truly believe that if the firemen were able to listen to our frequency, a lot of guys would have got out of the building," Klein said.
The communication breakdown between the police and fire department cost many firefighters their lives, the bipartisan commission on the terrorist attacks concluded in 2004. Commissioners recommended a major initiative to bolster emergency communications nationwide and called for the creation of a mobile broadband network dedicated exclusively to first responders.
Yet 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the construction of an interoperable wireless network for first responders has not been approved by Congress. The failure to create the network is just one of nine major recommendations by the 9/11 Commission that Congress, the executive branch or federal, state and local authorities have either not acted on at all or only partially implemented, members of the panel said in a report in early September. Among the other outstanding business: streamlining congressional oversight, setting up an effective board to balance civil liberties with security and instituting a standardized national ID system.
"Overall we're much better off, but we still have glaring vulnerabilities and they need to be addressed," John Lehman, a 9/11 commissioner and Navy Secretary under President Reagan, said in an interview.
Some of these shortcomings involve security measures to protect Americans from future attack. The failure of foreign terrorists to successfully carry out another significant terror attack on U.S. soil since 2001 -- despite repeated attempts -- is a clear indication of the nation's broad success in the battle against al Qaeda and other terrorists, commissioners said.
The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. forces also represents a major achievement by the country's intelligence agencies and military in taking the offensive in the fight against terrorism.
But thwarted attacks by homegrown extremists and foreign cells in the past several years indicate that, despite the weakened capabilities of al Qaeda, terrorist threats on American soil will remain a reality for years and decades to come.
Chaos On Capitol Hill
Oversight of security and intelligence policy falls largely to Congress, and in their original report, the 9/11 commissioners found that authority over these concerns was splintered among 88 different committees and subcommittees. The panel recommended streamlining oversight and review under one committee.
Since then, the jurisdictional mess over security and intelligence has only deepened. "We railed against 88 committees. Now it's up to 106 committees," Lehman said. "It's just a terrible plague."
Commissioners also urged federal agencies to pursue better technology to detect explosives in baggage, cargo and on passengers' bodies. The threat of explosives on airliners remains a potent one, illustrated by near-miss attacks by the Christmas 2009 "underwear bomber" and the foiled plot by Yemen-based terrorists to plant bombs in the cargo holds of airliners last year.
In the area of disaster response, recommendations by the 9/11 panel to strengthen and streamline command-and-control procedures during major disasters had mixed success, commissioners found.
While no major terror attacks have tested the nation's first responders since 9/11, several large-scale natural and man-made disasters in intervening years have exposed serious flaws in the coordination of response efforts among local, state and national authorities.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, overwhelmed state and local responders turned for help to the federal government, which was harshly criticized for a slow and disorganized rescue and relief effort.
Communication breakdowns and turf battles over command and control of response efforts -- a problem seen in the aftermath of 9/11 -- were also repeated during Katrina.
"There should be someone in charge at the site of a disaster," Lee Hamilton, the commission's vice chairman, said in an interview. "Someone has to be calling the shots."
Command-and-control problems resurfaced during the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, Hamilton said. Although communication between response agencies and government entities was improved, state and local authorities, particularly in Louisiana, at times bucked centralized control and set up competing command structures.
States Balk At National ID
Hamilton added that many state governments have failed to enact one of the most controversial recommendations of the commission: the creation of federally-approved state driver's licenses. The commission found that the 9/11 hijackers obtained at least 30 pieces of state-issued identification, including multiple driver's licenses, which aided them in evading law enforcement scrutiny for traffic violations.
The commission urged Congress to address the vulnerability of state ID systems to fraud by terrorists and other criminals by creating a single national standard for driver's licenses. The House and Senate mandated these requirements with the passage of the 2005 Real ID Act.
But the prospect of a national ID outraged privacy and civil liberties advocates and raised fiscal concerns, as bringing state IDs in line with national standards would cost states billions of dollars. Its full implementation has been delayed until 2013 by the Obama administration.
Not all the shortcomings identified by the 9/11 commissioners relate to national security or emergency response, however. The aftermath of the terror attacks was marked by an extraordinary growth in data gathering and surveillance powers by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
To protect against the erosion of Americans' constitutional rights, the commission recommended the formation of a civil liberties and privacy board within the executive branch to act as a counterweight to the expanding powers of the national security state. The board was created by Congress in 2004, but has been ineffectual under both the Bush and Obama administrations, according to 9/11 commissioners.
The civil liberties and privacy board has been "dormant" for the last three years, commissioners wrote in their September 2011 report. During that period, federal authorities continued to exercise powers granted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, such as the use of roving wiretaps against terrorism suspects and special subpoenas compelling businesses to turn over financial records without specifying the nature or subject of the inquiry.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman of the 9/11 commission, said that while Bush appointed a board, "they weren't, frankly, the best." While Congress strengthened the board by making it bipartisan and having its be members subject to Senate confirmation, Kean said, Obama has failed to fill its seats. Two members of the five-person board nominated by Obama await confirmation by the Senate, while the other three positions are simply unfilled.
"I don’t know why," Kean said, adding that whenever he and Hamilton have brought up the issue, "the answer is always, 'It's on the way.'"
Proponents of civil liberties and privacy within the government wield little authority in debates over federal policy, Hamilton said. "The security people win every argument," he said, adding that "the capabilities they have in terms of intrusions into privacy and civil liberties are awesome."
The issue of terrorist detention and the legal rights of Guantanamo detainees also remains unresolved, despite a campaign promise by Obama to close the detention center and try most detainees in civilian court. Republicans in Congress have bitterly fought the administration's attempts to transfer detainees to civilian custody and pushed for military commissions for terrorism suspects.
Still A Failure To Communicate
Even some seemingly straightforward tasks proposed by the commission have been delayed by unforeseen complications. The creation of a national mobile broadband network for first responders -- dubbed a "no-brainer" by commission members and its boosters in Congress -- has proven anything but simple for those attempting to bring it into being.
Few in Congress have argued against the utility of a nationwide system allowing emergency responders from disparate agencies to communicate with each other during a disaster. But questions about cost and squabbles over the network's design have created a series of stumbling blocks that have so far frustrated its backers' efforts.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee that would set aside 10 megahertz of broadband spectrum, known as "D Block," that was voluntarily returned to the government by television broadcasters several years ago for the first responder system. The bill allocates $11.75 billion for the construction of the responder system, which would be paid for through the auction of additional broadband spectrum to the private sector.
The auction of broadband spectrum would generate an additional $6.5 billion in revenue that could be dedicated to deficit reduction, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
In an interview, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's strongest advocates, called the failure of Congress to authorize the construction of the broadband network a decade after the terror attacks "unacceptable."
"Any kid with a smartphone has better technology to download data than our first responders who are rushing into burning buildings," Gillibrand said. "That needs to change."
The Senate bill, authored by Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), is co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), the committee's ranking Republican member.
In an August letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, both senators cited the effects of the recent East Coast earthquake on communications networks as a prime example of the need for a dedicated first-responder broadband system. The earthquake caused little structural damage but led to significant disruptions in cellphone service for millions of people, including some emergency workers, the senators noted.
"Our bill addresses one of the last outstanding recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, promises to save lives, would create hundreds of thousands of jobs without costing taxpayers a dime, and provides billions for deficit reduction," the letter concluded.
President Obama has already endorsed the creation of a dedicated first responder network, but whether the Senate bill will find backing among Republicans in the House is unclear. At a hearing in May, Republican members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology indicated voiced opposition to the allocation of the D Block spectrum to first responders.
Several Republican lawmakers observed that the nation's public safety sector was granted roughly 25 megahertz of broadband spectrum in 2005 that has not been totally utilized and expressed skepticism that apportioning an additional 10 megahertz of spectrum for a dedicated first responders broadband network would be cost-effective.
"We have provided public safety with nearly 100 megahertz of spectrum for their exclusive use," said Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee. "Six years later, that spectrum lays woefully underused. Clearly something in our approach is not working."
Other Republicans questioned whether the billions required for constructing the public safety broadband network would be spent effectively.
Democrats on the panel, however, argued that the Rockefeller and Hutchinson bill addressed concerns about funding, governance and accountability raised by Republican lawmakers.
"I appreciate the fact that doing this right is complex and challenging," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). "But with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fast approaching, we need to settle on a path forward and move quickly."
In New York City, the creation of the broadband network is no longer essential to allow police and firefighters to communicate over the same frequency as that problem was largely resolved by city authorities several years ago. Other major cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, have also deployed interoperable networks. But for many other U.S. cities, a critical communications breakdown that costs lives may be just one major disaster away.
It is a thought that troubles men like Glen Klein, whose NYPD unit lost 14 men in the Sept. 11 attacks. "If we did have that system and it saved only one life, it would have been worth every penny," he said.