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9/11 panel rips U.S. for security steps not taken

The 9/11 commission gave the president and Congress an F on improving emergency communications, along  with a variety of other areas cited in its report two years ago. NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.

WASHINGTON — The chaos of Katrina was made worse by the frustrating inability of first responders in New Orleans to communicate with each other with anything more than hand signals and binoculars — the very same inability to talk that plagued rescuers on 9/11.

If the Pentagon were attacked again today, police in key Virginia suburbs could communicate by radio with the FBI, but not directly with police in Washington, D.C. In many cities, the problem is even worse.

"Four years after 9/11, it is a scandal that police and firefighters in large cities still can't talk to each other reliably," says one of the former co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission, Tom Kean.

The 9/11 commission gave the president and Congress an F on that, and bad grades in other key areas:

  • F: There's still no unified terrorist watch list to screen airline passengers;
  • D: Little progress in screening cargo and checked bags;
  • D: Minimal improvement in information sharing within the government.

"We're frustrated, we're passionate and we're angry," says Kean, "because the United States government is not doing what it needs to do to protect American citizens."

The commission charged that Congress continues to dole out Homeland Security funds for pork. Newark, N.J. bought new air-conditioned garbage trucks. Washington, D.C. sent sanitation workers to self-help seminars.

"Why aren't our tax dollars being spent to protect our lives?" asks former 9/11 commission member James Thompson. "What's the rationale? What's the excuse? There is no excuse."

The government does get good marks in some areas, including:

  • A-: Cutting off terrorist financing;
  • B: Going after terrorist sanctuaries;
  • B: A biometric screening system at the border.                                            

The White House argues many of the bad grades don't reflect all the progress.

"Are we finished? No," says White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend. "We've got more to do. But we've done a tremendous amount to help secure the country."

But the commission worries that there is no sense of urgency. For example, Congress is finally considering a bill to set aside space on the airwaves to help first responders communicate. It takes effect — in 2009.