WASHINGTON - The United States government lacks a sense of urgency in making critical changes in intelligence gathering and sharing needed to prevent terror attacks on America, top members of the September 11 commission told Congress on Friday.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton urged lawmakers to embrace their proposed reforms, saying the biggest failure of the US intelligence system ahead of the September 11, 2001, attacks was that the various agencies did not share information.
They told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, in the first of a series of congressional hearings on the commission's findings, that despite efforts to improve the performance of the intelligence community, officials needed to do much more with a deeper sense of urgency.
"We find a desire to move ahead, but the whole government just is not acting with the urgency we think is required across the board, whether it's screening for cargo or checking airplane passengers or checking the air space or whatever," Hamilton told the committee.
"Lots of good things have been done, but much, much more needs to be done. And what seems to us to be lacking is that real sense of urgency."
The Senate panel is weighing commission recommendations that the CIA and 14 other intelligence agencies report to a single national intelligence director, and the creation of a national counterterrorism center to analyse data collected by the various agencies.
PROBLEMS OF SHARING INFORMATION
The commission, which issued its report last week, recommended that the new national intelligence director report to the president, be confirmed by and accountable to the Senate, and have control over intelligence budgets that are dispersed throughout the government.
"One of the things we found ... is not just problems of sharing from agency to agency, it's problems sharing within the agency that was such a problem," Kean told the Senate panel. "We hope this structure will force that sharing of information and also put somebody in charge."
The commission also sharply criticised the way Congress oversees intelligence. Its recommendation for an overhaul of congressional oversight is to be handled in the Senate by a separate working group.
Lawmakers are scrambling to address the recommendations by the commission ahead of the November elections. While the Senate is pushing to develop legislation by October 1, leaders in the US House of Representatives have scheduled a series of hearings on the report during the August congressional recess.
President George W Bush is examining ways to implement some of the recommendations of the commission, which he first opposed but later embraced, by executive order.
The president is under election-year political pressure to respond to the report's criticisms of the government's response to terrorism and has been conferring with senior aides on what action to take.
"We are nearing completion of the review of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Friday.
He said decisions would be made "in a matter of days." Aides said an announcement could come next week.
Democratic challenger John Kerry has called for extending the commission for another 18 months to oversee progress in implementing proposed changes.