Why Congress Is the Biggest Obstacle to Stopping the Next Terrorist Attack

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas., listens during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting, on June 24, 2014.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas., listens during a House Homeland Security Committee meeting, on June 24, 2014.

The Department of Homeland Security, the 9/11 commission, even Congress itself say congressional oversight is out of control. By Clara Ritger

The committee established by Congress to advise the government on how to prevent another 9/11-scale attack recommended in its 2004 report that Congress get out of the way of the Department of Homeland Security and let its leaders do their job.

A decade later, that still hasn’t happened.

The Department of Homeland Security says that in 2013, its staff held more than 1,650 congressional briefings and had 161 witnesses appear at 105 hearings. By Homeland Security’s count, the hours it has spent to meet the demands of Congress cost the agency the equivalent of 66 work years.

It’s not just a waste of taxpayer dollars, says House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, but a misuse of the valuable resources that could be otherwise spent stopping the next terrorist attack.

Congress has not done its job and it takes away from the primary focus and mission of protecting the American people,” the Texas Republican said at a committee hearing Wednesday while holding up a map of the various committees DHS reports to. “This is dysfunctional. If you look up dysfunctional in the dictionary you will probably see this map.”

McCaul says he wants to lead the effort to finally put in place the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to establish one point of oversight and review for the agency.

Everyone knows that when everyone is in charge, no one is,” said Jamie Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 Commission who testified Wednesday before the Homeland Security Committee. The commission produced a follow-up report this week to honor the 10-year anniversary of the original recommendations.

9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said there was no one he talked to who didn’t say congressional oversight was a major problem impeding antiterrorism efforts.

Four [Homeland Security] secretaries now, two Republicans and two Democrats, have all said to us the most important problem they have in fighting terrorism is the Congress,” Kean said. “That’s their biggest obstacle.”

While the executive branch has undergone “historic change and institutional reform” over the last decade, Kean said, Congress has resisted reforms in a way that is counterproductive.

DHS staff are “not working every day on protecting the American people if they’re preparing and giving testimony to the U.S. Congress,” Kean said. “Could you imagine having 90 different bosses? How could you get anything done?”

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