Lee Hamilton | Good intentions don't deliver progress

Hamilton is a former congressman and was vice chairman of the 9/11 commission

I don't have any doubt about [the government's] good wishes, their good intent. I just want to see a sense of urgency.' Lee Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson Center

Rick Steele

Lee Hamilton, the former congressman who would later be named vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, recalls exactly where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.

The current director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a policy think-tank in Washington, was sitting in an airplane at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, bound for his home state of Indiana, when suddenly, a flight attendant ordered everyone off the aircraft.

'I thought the plane was on fire, so I jumped up, we got the doors opened and I ran out,' he said. 'It was when I got in the terminal that I knew something more than a single plane was involved because people [from other boarded planes] were pouring into the terminal.'

What had happened was not immediately obvious, as Hamilton's cellular phone conked out and the televisions in the terminal were not functioning.

But with National Airport less than two miles from the Pentagon, Hamilton saw the big cloud of smoke that, from that point on, changed his life.

'I immediately recognized it as a singular, historic event,' he said in an interview five years later. 'I made the analogy to Pearl Harbor; I was a little boy when that happened. I knew it would have a profound impact on America.'

Hamilton, who served more than 30 years in Congress and joined the Wilson Center in 1999, brought a seasoned perspective to the 9/11 commission.

Its report blasted the bureaucratic nature of the intelligence agencies and urged the government to forge a decentralized, trusted information network that would share data horizontally.

While Hamilton sees some progress in implementing his commission's suggested reforms'the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, for one'he is, overall, dissatisfied with the pace of change.

'We've got the mechanisms, we're beginning to [share intelligence]. We certainly are doing it better than we were prior to Sept. 11,' he said. 'But I think we've got a long way to go.' In particular, Hamilton said information sharing between agencies still remains a big concern'a problem exposed during the government's slow and confounding response to Hurricane Katrina last August.

'[I]f you go to any department or agency of government and say, 'What have you done since Sept. 11?' they'd give you a list of 100 things,' he said. 'You look down through the list and you say, 'By golly, that's terrific.' Well, they gave me the same list prior to Katrina, but nothing happened. It's one thing to give you the list, it's another thing whether they're implementing what's on the list. I don't have any doubt about their good wishes, their good intent. I just want to see a sense of urgency.'

The recent alleged terrorist plot in London, in which more than a dozen Islamic fundamentalists allegedly planned to blow up several airplanes in mid-air using bombs mixed on the planes, underscores his concerns.

'Mixing two or three or five or six benign liquids into an explosive has been well-known since right after Sept. 11,' he said. 'Here were are five years later and we still do not have a means of detecting it, except for searches at the airport, where we've never stopped anything.'

For Hamilton, detecting and stopping dangerous people and cargo remains the country's biggest challenge post-Sept. 11.

'Efforts are being made, no doubt about that,' he said. 'This idea of developing these detection devices is not easy because the technology keeps developing. But at some point along the line you have to decide to implement something. You can't just research it forever.'

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