The United States has made progress to protect against another terrorist attack, but the New Jersey/New York region remains at risk, former 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean Sr. said on Thursday.
Intelligence is being shared and air travelers are being tracked, but the first responders don't have the communications tools -- particularly common radio frequencies -- they need, Kean said.
In an interview before he spoke on a panel at the Newseum in Washington about progress made and challenges remaining since 9/11, Kean said many of the commission's recommendations have been implemented and have made the country safer.
"We think the coordination of information is better. It's one of the things that helped us kill bin Laden," said Kean, a former New Jersey governor.
He also said terror watch lists are making a difference.
"Certainly when you go into the homeland security center and you see they've got there listed every single passenger getting on any plane, anywhere in the world, for the United States and they're checking them off list, that's good," Kean said.
But he said the nation and its allies still have not paid enough attention to controlling nuclear material, which is not the most likely but is the most potentially dangerous vulnerability.
And he said some recommendations he and vice chairman Lee Hamilton thought would be easy to implement remain unfinished, including dedicating part of the broadcast spectrum to first responders.
"People died on 9/11 when policemen couldn't talk to firemen inside the towers. People died in Katrina when people in helicopters couldn't talk to people in boats. And if there was an emergency tomorrow, people would die again," Kean said during the panel discussion.
Hamilton, a former longtime congressman from Indiana who joined Kean on Thursday's panel, agreed.
"It's an outrage, pure and simple. It's an outrage that 10 years later, we haven't solved this," he said.
Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said federal funding has improved radio communications, especially in the most at-risk areas.
But debate continues in Congress about dedicating a broadband spectrum that could be used for video and data sharing in emergencies.
The communications industry and some in Congress who see a potential revenue source prefer that the spectrum be auctioned to the private sector, with provisions that it be turned over to public services in an emergency.
During the interview, Kean said Congress should be careful if it decides to cut back on funding to states and localities to improve terrorism prevention and disaster response capabilities.
"I would say, and not just because I'm from New Jersey, that it would be stupid to cut funds to New Jersey or New York or Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles because these are obvious targets and we've got to prioritize," he said.
He agreed with those who say Congress should not just be providing money to states and cities that cut back on their own spending, but he said the money has never been truly prioritized to go where it is most needed.
"Some of those same congressman [who want to make cuts] are still trying to protect money in their districts, in some of the places in the country that are under no threat whatsoever," he said.
In the end, though, he said the most important factor in improving security is keeping the public involved and reporting things that are suspicious.
"As long as the public understands that it's not going to be the FBI that's going to spot these things first, it's going to be one of us. As long as people are alert and don't get complacent, I think the system's going to work," he said.
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September 9, 2011