9/11 Commission Chairmen Highlight Border Recommendations in 10th Anniversary Report Card

By Janice Kephart on August 31, 2011

Among the unspoken tension of the pending ten-year anniversary of 9/11, there is really only one set of voices that rises above all others: that of 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton, who together led the bipartisan commission forward politically and substantively in a manner that has changed the way we look at national security, and changed government for the better. Today, together once more and flanked by former commissioners John Lehman and Slade Gorton, they released their "Tenth Anniversary Report Card: The Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations." The report highlights the top nine areas the Commissioners believe require the most work after a full assessment supported by the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Preparedness Group. They term these "Nine Major Unfinished 9/11 Commission Recommendations."

Discussing the "evolving terrorist threat to the U.S.", the commissioners hint as to why they highlight two border-related recommendations among the 41 in the 9/11 Final Report. Of specific concern to Kean and Hamilton are the recruitment and radicalization of jihadists that support ideas similar to the 9/11 hijackers in failed states like Yemen and Somalia, while other al Qaeda affiliates, such as in Southeast Asia, are on the rise. While the commissioners remain concerned about homegrown terrorism in ethnic communities most predominantly, we know, for example, that only two percent of those on our federal watchlists are U.S. residents, meaning either citizens or legal permanent residents; the rest are foreign-born. Specifically, the commissioners refer to the breadth of al Qaeda affiliates that have multiplied in diversity since 9/11: "In assessing terrorist threats to the American homeland, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials now call attention to al Qaeda's strategy of 'diversification' – attacks mounted by a wide variety of perpetrators of different national and ethnic backgrounds that cannot easily be 'profiled' as threats."

What I take the commissioners' comments to mean – alongside knowledge they have that the watchlists are 98 percent foreign born – is that our border system must be applied equally and strategically across the board to reach everyone, so that visas and travel are vetted with minimum standards for all travelers seeking to board a plane to the U.S. That is not the case now. Nor have we made sure we know who is leaving and when, despite laws being on the books for over a decade requiring an exit-tracking system. Nor have we done all we can to stop the kind of fraud that enables terrorists' embedding and assimilation – which begins with faulty vital records that cannot be verified, continues to the acquisition of driver licenses and culminates in vast policies of amnesty that have little basis in assuring that terrorists and criminals are removed or prevented from legal status. Highlighting issues pertaining to verifying identity and knowing who is here and when, the commissioners' report card had this to say:

Biometric Entry-Exit Screening System

Recommendation: "The Department of Homeland Security, properly supported by the Congress, should complete, as quickly as possible, a biometric entry-exit screening system."

One area of great progress in securing our borders is the deployment of the biometric entry system known as US-VISIT. This system checks all individuals who arrive at U.S. borders, ensures they are who they say they are, and helps prevent known terrorists from entering the country. Data collected by US-VISIT are also used by homeland security, defense, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies for other important national security functions. US-VISIT has proven its value as a national security tool.

Despite the successful deployment of the entry component of US-VISIT, however, there still is no comprehensive exit system in place. As important as it is to know when foreign nationals arrive, it is also important to know when they leave. Full deployment of the biometric exit component of US-VISIT should be a high priority. Such a capability would have assisted law enforcement and intelligence officials in August and September 2001 in conducting a search for two of the 9/11 hijackers that were in the U.S. on expired visas.

Standardize Secure Identifications

Recommendation: "The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as drivers licenses."

Eighteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers obtained 30 state issued IDs that enabled them to more easily board planes on the morning of 9/11. Due to the ease with which fraud was used to obtain legitimate IDs that helped the hijackers carry out a terrorist act, the 9/11 Commission recommended that "the federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver's licenses."

The REAL ID Act established these standards by statute. In 2008, detailed regulations were issued setting standards and benchmarks for issuing driver's licenses. While nearly one-third of the states have complied with the first tier of benchmarks, the deadlines for compliance have been pushed back twice to May 2011, and a recent announcement pushed back compliance again until January 2013. The delay in compliance creates vulnerabilities and makes us less safe. No further delay should be authorized; rather, compliance should be accelerated.

In addition, there are still no minimum standards for birth certificates in place, as required by the intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. These standards are needed to close a back door that terrorists could use to obtain driver's licenses.

The commissioners' recognition that border security is national security, the most basic tenet of curtailing terrorist travel, is reflected in their choice to name two border recommendations in their top nine. The Obama administration has ignored both. Regarding an exit-tracking program, Secretary Napolitano has said it is unnecessary. Regarding secure driver's licenses, she dedicated her first year in office to repealing the REAL ID law and has completely ignored birth certificate standards or digitization. Her disinterest in 9/11 Commission recommendations, and in fact her complete dismissal of them, is reflective of an administration that has not treated our borders as venue to enforce national security. This, unfortunately, we know all too well at this point.