Incompetence, Power Struggles Hinder Govt From Preventing Terrorist Attacks in U.S., Says Bipartisan Report Card

By Penny Starr | January 26, 2010 | 10:51 PM EST

Former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.)

( – Former senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) said at a news conference on Tuesday that the Obama administration is ill-prepared to protect the United States from a biological terrorist attack and that incompetence and the reluctance to share information and power led to the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack by an Al Qaeda operative on a Northwest airliner.
The pair answered questions after presenting a report card on the government’s ability to prevent America’s enemies from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The report card awarded the Obama administration and Congress three “Fs” -- failing grades for the inability to prevent and respond to a biological terror attack, lack of congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence, and no programs in place to train the next generation of national security experts.
The report card is a follow-up to the 2008 report “World at Risk,” produced by a mandate of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007. Graham is chairman and Talent vice chairman of the bipartisan, independent Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, which issued the 2008 report. Graham and Talent also produced the report card, the final act of the now-defunct body.
When asked by if political correctness played a role in the failure to identify Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a terror suspect, the lawmakers said it was how the federal government operates that caused the security breakdown, not ethnic sensitivities.
“I don’t think this is a political correctness issue,” Graham told at the press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “One of many disturbing things about the Christmas attack was how much we knew about the attack before.”
“We had the father of the perpetrator come into a U.S. Embassy and describe the radicalization of his son,” Graham said. “We knew the son had gone to Yemen through other aspects of our intelligence. We were becoming increasingly aware of the strength of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen.”
“If we couldn’t catch this one, it’s an ominous example of what we are going to do if we don’t have as much information as we had,” Graham said.
“I don’t think this is political correctness, I think this is a competence issue that we faced on Christmas Day,” Graham said. He added that eight years after 9/11 the men who hijacked the three planes that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania were able to get U.S. visas, Abdulmutallab – despite even more red flags -- was able to obtain one from the U.S. Embassy in London.

President Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010. (AP Photo)

Talent told that he believed the U.S. agencies and branches of government entrusted with protecting the country from WMDs and other terror threats are reluctant to relinquish authority, even if it would mean the cooperation and communication necessary to connect the dots and prevent future attacks.
“If you talk to people in government, of course they all agree that it is a terrible danger, that it needs to be a priority in dealing with it,” Talent said. “But I think our leaders need to stop and … what it means to say that something’s a priority.”
“It’s just a matter of sacrificing, for example, the jurisdiction of your committee,” Talent said. “I was a committee chairman, Bob was a committee chairman. You don’t like to give up your committee jurisdiction.”
“You’re going to have to do some things we don’t like to defend against this,” Talent said, citing as an example how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  has jousted with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over which agency should oversee laboratories studying biological pathogens.
“Well, okay, get over it,” Talent said. “There are a whole lot of things that we could be doing if we just follow through on the idea that this is a priority.”
 “And I think it would help throughout the government if everybody understands that this is a priority,” Talent said. “That means we are willing to sacrifice certain things that ideally we would not want to sacrifice. We’re going to have to have that mentality, in order to deal with this.”
The report cites the H1N1 virus as an example of the Obama administration’s ineffective response to a public health threat.
“H1N1 came with weeks of warning,” the report says. “But even with time to prepare, the epidemic peaked before most Americans had access to the vaccine. A bioattack will come with no such warning.”
The 18-page report card is a grim reminder of U.S. vulnerability to terror attacks and the continued determination of her enemies, including Al-Qaeda. The report predicted that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency” that a WMD attack – most likely biological in nature – would take place somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”
The report did not exclusively blame the Obama administration for its lackluster approach to warding off terror attacks, particularly biological attacks.
“The failures did not begin with the current group of leaders,” the report says. “Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to biothreat. The difference is that the danger has grown to the point that we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve. The clock is ticking and time is running out.”
The grading system is based on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, with an A given if all recommendations were fully implemented;  initial or limited steps taken for grades B, C and D; and F awarded for “no attention of action taken.”
Only one I, or Incomplete, grade was given for nuclear risks as it relates to Pakistan and other countries, citing that the president and Congress should continue to develop a comprehensive policy to fight nuclear proliferation and terrorist safe havens, but that it is too difficult to predict the long-term outcome of those efforts.
No grade was given for Iran and North Korea, with the report citing that it was avoiding spelling out exact tactics for ending those nation’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons given the international dynamics in place toward that end. It also said both countries “pose an immediate and urgent threat to their respective regions and to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which could trigger a dangerous cascade of proliferation.”
The report was not uniformly negative, with three A’s given to the Obama administration and Congress for strengthening domestic and international monitoring of disease, the appointment of a federal WMD coordinator, and the restructuring of the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council.
The report is introduced by letters on the commission’s findings to the president and both the Republican and Democrat leadership in the House and Senate.
It concludes with 13 recommendations, including one that claims U.S. citizens should play a pivotal role in meeting the national security threats facing the country in the 21st century.
The Obama administration said Tuesday that plans to prevent and respond to bioterrorism attacks will be part of the president’s State of the Union speech on Wednesday night.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on Tuesday that the president, several weeks ago,  "signed an executive order to establish a more rapid capability to dispense--to provide medical counter-measures in the event of a bio-attack. And part of what the president will announce tomorrow (Wednesday), of that review that led to the executive order, is to launch an initiative aimed at responding faster and more effectively to those public health threats. The administration is proud of the efforts that we’ve undertaken to put our nation on a firmer footing in dealing with these (threats).”
Further, Obama has worked with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in the Senate to address the threat of nuclear material in the the former Soviet Union, Gibbs said. “The president has outlined a plan to get all loose nuclear material contained over a four-year period of time, and in April will host 43 nations in a nuclear security summit in order to make sure that those promises are made real," he said.
The executive director of the commission, Randall Larsen, also spoke at the press conference with Graham and Talent. And while the commission is no longer a sanctioned body, both Graham and Talent expressed a commitment to continue working together to prevent the proliferation of WMDs.