“I just think what’s pervasive through the country, and has been now for a number of years, is the complacency, an inertia, a business-as-usual attitude … that I think is harmful,” former 9/11 Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton told ABC News. This, he says, includes the entire political leadership of the United States — President Obama, leaders of Congress and the “many, many people that have had a part in Homeland Security.”
“You can’t put all the responsibility on the president, but obviously he shares a major part of it,” said Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman. "His speech yesterday suggested he's going to bear down on this, I hope that's the case."
Hamilton spoke to us for the Political Punch Podcast, which you can listen to HERE or download it on iTunes.
Currently president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Hamilton spoke to us the day after Obama met with his national security team to look at government failures leading to Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair (Ret.) holds a position created because of a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission. Blair and the National Counter Terrorism Center are chiefly responsible for connecting the dots, for analyzing the data coming in.
We asked Hamilton whether they weren't the ones chiefly responsible for dropping the ball.
"On the basis of what I know now, I would answer that question, 'Yes,'" Hamilton said, adding that it was possible some of the information didn't get to the DNI or NCTC offices in a timely manner.
If they did get that information in a timely manner, he said, "the responsibility lies there for not analyzing it quickly. Over the period of years, the intelligence community has always been better at collecting, gathering information than they have at analyzing it — that’s the tough part, analyzing it. You don’t get a nice tidy package of information telling you everything you want to know about a terrorist attack. … The challenge is formidable.”
“Here, I believe, on the information that has been released, the responsibility would lie chiefly with the National Counter Terrorism Center,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he and others on the 9/11 Commission are frustrated that even though progress has been made, the U.S. government — at all levels — has yet to act with a sense of urgency and make homeland security a top priority.
“It’s a matter of very great frustration to us that we have not sufficiently got our act together in this country that we could prevent that threat, even from developing, so I had a high degree of frustration, even discouragement,” Hamilton said.
“You’re dealing with very smart people here, they understand the vulnerabilities of our system very well,” he said of the terrorists. "The hijackers on 9/11 knew precisely what the weaknesses were and they study our transportation systems constantly, they know what the vulnerability points are and we have to anticipate that they are studying the system, they are reacting, they are changing their techniques, so it’s an ongoing evolving battle that we have.”
Hamilton said one of his "very great frustrations is we still do not have the detection equipment we need. Everybody passes through the monitors on the way to the airport. Those monitors are set up to catch metal objects. Well, the terrorists have figured that out a long, long time ago. Do you still need to do that? Of course you do. But you must have detection equipment that can spot these explosives that don’t register on a metal detector. Why haven’t we had it? We’ve been working on it, spending money on it, still don’t have it."
When asked if it makes sense for everyone on the terrorist watch databases to be automatically subjected to additional screening, Hamilton said "it would seem to be they ought to be."
Are we significantly safer than before 9/11?
Hamilton replied, “Are we significantly safer? Undoubtedly yes. Are we safe enough? Undoubtedly no.”
For more on our conversation with Lee Hamilton, listen to the podcast HERE or download it on iTunes. The Political Punch Podcast is produced by Huma Khan.