New York Times
November 15, 2005
WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 - The members of the Sept. 11 commission charged Monday that the Bush administration had made "insufficient progress" in trying to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. They called on President Bush to make the issue "his top national security priority and ride herd on the bureaucracy to maintain a sense of urgency."
In the latest of a series of privately financed "report cards" on government antiterrorism efforts, the five Democrats and five Republicans on the commission also warned that reports of the government's abusive treatment of terror suspects abroad were eliciting "criticism from around the globe," and that the administration needed to adopt standards for treatment of detainees in line with international law.
Though the report did not explicitly endorse legislation overwhelmingly adopted by the Senate and opposed by the White House that would bar abuse of any terror suspect in American custody, some commission members said widespread reports of abuse and even torture of Muslim suspects by American captors had served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
"The flames of extremism undoubtedly burn more brightly when we are the ones who deliver the gasoline," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission.
The report, released by a private lobbying group created by the commissioners when their panel disbanded last year, focused on nuclear proliferation and foreign policy issues. It was the latest effort by the group to grade the government's response to the recommendations made in the commission's final, official report 16 months ago.
While the report praised some of the government's efforts, finding that there had been "good progress" over the last year in cracking down on terrorist financing and in promoting economic policies to advance Arab and Muslim nations, it found "minimal" or "insufficient progress" in 7 of the 13 areas it surveyed.
Asked about the report, Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, said the Bush administration "appreciated all the hard work of the commissioners, and our focus is on building upon the steps already taken." Ms. Perino said that by the White House count, President Bush had acted on 37 of the panel's 39 major recommendations.
"The administration holds prevention of a potential nuclear terrorism attack as an extremely high priority," she said, "and we are implementing an aggressive and comprehensive strategy against such a possibility." She added that the administration had called for $316 million over the next year for a new Domestic Nuclear Detection Office.
In its report last year, the commission warned that the Sept. 11 attacks would not be the last major terrorist strike on American soil, noting that Al Qaeda had tried for at least 10 years to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The panel said that control of worldwide nuclear stockpiles required a "maximum effort" by the government to prevent them from falling into terrorists' hands.
In the report card on Monday, the commissioners said they were alarmed that so little had been done on the issue, even in light of what the Bush administration described as a landmark agreement this year with Russia to expand the number of nuclear sites there available for inspection and security improvements.
Proliferation specialists say that nuclear sites in Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union are so poorly secured that weapons-grade material may be easily acquired by terrorists.
"The most striking thing to us is that the size of the problem still totally dwarfs the policy response," said Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and the chairman of the Sept. 11 commission. "We have no greater fear than a terrorist who is inside the United States with a nuclear weapon. The consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic for our people, for our economy, for our liberties."
Mr. Kean said the agreement with Russia was among the "good steps" taken by the Bush administration to deal with nuclear threats, "but they're not nearly enough."
The report said that accounts of abuse of terror suspects by American military and intelligence agencies had stirred controversy that "only makes it harder to build the diplomatic, political and military alliances necessary to fight the war on terror effectively."