WASHINGTON - The US government is not doing enough to protect nuclear weapons from terrorists and its handling of terrorism suspects is undermining America's image in the Muslim world, members of a commission that investigated the September 11 attacks said.
Although President George W Bush calls arms proliferation the country's biggest threat and al Qaeda has sought nuclear weapons for a decade, the former commission's chairman Thomas Kean said, "the most striking thing to us is that the size of the problem still totally dwarfs the policy response".
'In short, we still do not have a maximum effort against the most urgent threat... to the American people," he told a news conference, noting that half the nuclear materials in Russia still have no security upgrade.
The bipartisan commission was established by the US Congress to investigate the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network that killed nearly 3000 people.
It formally disbanded after submitting its final report in July last year, but members continue working as the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which tracks implementation of the report's recommendations.
The report recorded little progress on combating weapons proliferation as well as on US foreign policy and public diplomacy issues,
"This kind of grade -- unfulfilled, insufficient, minimal progress -- those grades are failing grades... That is an unacceptable response," Commission member Timothy Roemer said.
The panel attributed the poor results to the difficulty of the tasks and a divided government that is easily distracted even from urgent priorities.
The 9/11 commission had stressed the need for leaders to work together to protect the country but "if anything, we have become less unified and more partisan," commissioner Jamie Gorelick said.
Although the panel was encouraged by the appointment of Karen Hughes, Bush's close aide, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Vice chairman Lee Hamilton said Muslim world distrust remained high and "detainee abuse in Abu Ghraib (prison in Iraq), Guantanamo and elsewhere undermines America's reputation as a moral leader".
The United States was sharply criticised for its handling of detainees after photographs of guards abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the world.
US forces have held hundreds of detainees at known facilities outside the United States, such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since September 11 but senior al Qaeda leaders have been kept in secret detention facilities overseas.
The Washington Post last week disclosed the existence of CIA secret prisons in eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney has spearheaded an effort in Congress to have the CIA exempt from an amendment by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain that would ban torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
Bush threatened to veto the defence bill containing the amendment without the exemption.
Commissioner Richard Ben Veniste strongly endorsed the McCain amendment and said as leaders debate it, "the moral authority of our nation hangs in the balance".
Others on the 10-member commission did not specifically take sides on this politically-charged legislation.