Just as they did under the old and more urgent-sounding moniker of the “9/11 Commission,” and then again under the less-urgent and more bureaucratic-sounding “9/11 Public Discourse Project,” Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean are back on the national scene, beating the drums to make sure that the nation continues to maintain a focus on homeland security and evolve it security capabilities.

Today, they are doing it under the auspices of the “National Security Preparedness Group (NSPG).” Which kind of sounds like some internal working group at the Chamber of Commerce or a new lobbying firm in Washington. No matter, it’s an important job.

The 9/11 Commission was the most venerable of various independent and bipartisan ad hoc groups put together to assess what went wrong in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Their resulting study is one of the few well-read official public policy documents to be published in some time. Part of the respect the Commission generated was due to its genuinely bipartisan composition. Tom Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, the respected former congressman and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, set the serious-but-amicable tone of the group that spent months studying the events that led to 9/11. Many of their resulting recommendations were seen as mapping out a blueprint for strengthening homeland security.  Indeed in 2007 Congress passed the “9/11 Act” which took many of those recommendations – along with some misinterpretations of those recommendations  – and enacted them into law.

Getting their recommendations into law, however, was no easy feat. At first, the report by the 9/11 Commission was destined to the same fate as those produced by most such congressionally appointed blue-ribbon panels – to gather dust. Give credit to Hamilton and Kean for not sitting back and allowing that to happen. Former successful politicians themselves, they understood how to run a sharp public relations campaign, which they promptly set about doing. Thus did the official “9/11 Commission” morph into the “9/11 Public Discourse Project,” which was neither official nor sanctioned by Congress. In fact, many in Congress no doubt wished these guys would just go away, as many today probably wish the same of the NSPG. But they didn’t go away, and their ongoing campaign to see their recommendations put into law was effective – up to a point. After all, we are talking about Congress.

One of the most glaring failures of Congress, for example, was to ignore the Commission’s call to streamline congressional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. The eighty-plus committees and subcommittees on Capitol Hill all claiming some degree of jurisdiction over DHS has made the concept of oversight a joke.  This results in tremendous inefficiencies for the Department, which already labors under a mammoth mission and organizational structure with too few resources and must also scramble to constantly react to the steady stream of hearing requests and committee inquiries. Far more important, though, is the resulting byzantine and often-conflicting congressional directives aimed at DHS. Both Secretary Tom Ridge and Secretary Michael Chertoff pleaded with Congress to fix the problem, and no doubt Secretary Napolitano will follow suit once she’s had to deal with congressional schizophrenia long enough. However, without an independent and pr-savvy organization like the NSPG making the case and keeping the pressure on Congress, it’s unlikely this step will ever occur. While Congress is pretty darn good at criticizing DHS, it rarely turns a critical eye on itself; its members are more interested in protecting their turf than in reform.

Other reform recommendations included in the original 9/11 Report which have yet to see implementation include an entry/exit system. The Department established US VISIT to serve this purpose but has only managed to implement an entry system with no exit system, like some kind of massive Hotel California project. Currently, DHS is transforming US VISIT into a completely different creature, more of a biometrics hub to service the various component agencies of 9/11 than its original mission of establishing an entry/exit system. It’s unclear where Congress comes down on this; it’s unclear if members of Congress are even aware of it.

Another area that could become politically charged is secure drivers’ licenses. After Congress passed the REAL ID Act under Republican rule, many states rebelled claiming that Congress had issued another unfunded mandate. (And they were right.) However, we still face the prospect of many states having sieve-like processes for obtaining drivers’ license, filled with security vulnerabilities that are exploited every day. Usually the system is gamed so that illegal immigrants can get official documents that allow them to work and function in the United States. However, if illegal immigrants can game the system, so can transnational criminal and international terrorists – as was all-too-terribly proven on September 11th. Secretary Napolitano recently announced DHS would back away from REAL ID and replace it with a new approach known as PASS ID. It will be interesting to see where the former members of the 9/11 Commission come down on this burgeoning debate.

There are any number of other specific policy actions that the NSPG will undoubtedly seek to push into law. However, the group’s real value is simply its existence. As before, it is unquestionably bipartisan. It will no doubt at various times annoy purists on both sides of the ideological spectrum, but the credibility of the group cannot be questioned. It not only includes respected homeland security officials and leaders from both parties; it also includes journalists and think-tank analysts, such as “Looming Tower” author Lawrence Wright, CNN national security correspondent Peter Bergen and Stephen Flynn, who has made a name for himself after retiring from the Coast Guard as a homeland security analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Below is a full list of the National Security Preparedness Group members:

The Honorable Thomas H. Kean, Co-Chairman

Former Governor of New Jersey, THK Consulting

The Honorable Lee H. Hamilton, Co-Chairman

Former Congressman from Indiana, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

The Honorable E. Spencer Abraham

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy and U.S. Senator from Michigan, The Abraham Group

Mr. Peter Bergen

CNN National Security Analyst and Author, Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation

Dr. Stephen Flynn

Ira A. Lipman Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. John Gannon

BAE Systems, former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and U.S. House Homeland Security Staff Director

Dr. Bruce Hoffman

Georgetown University terrorism specialist and former Vice President for External Affairs at RAND Corporation

The Honorable Dave McCurdy

Former Congressman from Oklahoma and Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, President of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

The Honorable Edwin Meese III

Former U.S. Attorney General, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy and Chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation

The Honorable Tom Ridge

Former Governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Senior Advisor at Deloitte Global LLP, Ridge Global

The Honorable Frances Townsend

Former Homeland Security Advisor and former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism under President George W. Bush

The Honorable Richard L. Thornburgh

Former U.S. Attorney General, Of Counsel at K&L Gates

The Honorable Jim Turner

Former Congressman from Texas and Ranking Member of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, Arnold and Porter, LLP

Mr. Lawrence Wright

New Yorker Columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More