Speaker Says More Work Needed
Although a bipartisan commission on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was unanimous in its recommendations for preventing future acts of terrorism, little has been done, according to Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission.
Speaking at Konover Auditorium on April 22, Ben-Veniste said the lack of governmental follow-up to the work of the commission, as well as efforts to curb American civil liberties, remain cause for concern.
Unfortunately, the nation has lost the “unity of purpose that brought us together after 9/11,” he said.
The commission – comprising six Republicans and six Democrats – was created in 2002 by Congress and the President to examine the events leading up to the attacks and the nation’s response, and to make recommendations for the future.
Ben-Veniste, formerly chief of the Watergate Task Force and minority counsel for the Senate Whitewater Committee, said the 9/11 Commission went through 2.5 million documents, conducted 19 days of public hearings, and interviewed 1,200 witnesses, including President Bush and former President Clinton.
Although it conducted its work during a politically charged election year, the commission “chose transparency and provided the public with information,” he said, and in doing so, earned the confidence of both the government and the American people.
In its comprehensive 567-page final report, the commission concluded that the U.S. intelligence community had the necessary information to anticipate the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but poor communication and a failure to use existing intelligence prevented action from being taken to protect the nation, Ben-Veniste said.
“[U.S.] intelligence was pretty good in some respects, but what we did with that intelligence was horrendous,” he said. “Missed opportunities, failures of communication, lack of focus, and lack of imagination led to the Sept. 11 attacks. The 9/11 catastrophe might have been averted, had we used the information we had.”
He said it quickly became apparent to the commission that there was an “overwhelming need to reform the intelligence community.”
Ben-Veniste was critical of President Bush’s decision to appoint longtime advisor Karen Hughes to head an outreach effort to Muslims. He pointed out that there were no plans to include anyone of the Muslim faith in this effort and that it has yet to be staffed.
He also criticized those who equate the invasion of Iraq with responding to Sept. 11.
He said there needs to be oversight of homeland security efforts. “Who is watching the Department of Homeland Security?” he asked. Although there are 49 Congressional committees and subcommittees, he noted, Congress has not assigned a single panel to oversight of homeland security issues.
Ben-Veniste noted that the President has not followed up on a specific recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to create a civil rights oversight board to help ensure that the rights of Americans are not violated in the name of greater security. “Constitutional power requires an equally powerful watchdog,” he said.
He said the nation must balance the need to secure itself from acts of terrorism with protecting “our precious personal liberties that define our way of life. We live in an open society and don’t want a police state. We must continue to be vigilant in exposing the politics of fear.”
If U.S. citizens give up their rights and liberties in the name of security, said Ben-Veniste, “then the terrorists will have won.”