December 8, 2005
9/11 Commission Blew Their Chance

By Debra Saunders

It's truly a shame that the panelists on the 9-11 commission were such self-important windbags -- their 41 recommendations, they never fail to remind, were (all bow) "unanimous and bipartisan" -- that they blew their chance to make this country safer.

Don't' get me wrong. Washington has been unconscionably slow in doing the practical things needed -- such as providing a radio spectrum for emergency first-responders -- to make America more secure. The panel also was right to criticize the Senate for larding a homeland security spending bill with pork.

That said, the panel's hodgepodge recommendations -- the radio spectrum was the panel's 27th recommendation, yet it magically moved to the top of the list in the commission's devastating report card -- allowed the good stuff to get lost. It didn't help that Congress and the Bush administration were better at acting on the panels' many meaningless or wrong-headed recommendations than practical reforms.

What do I mean by meaningless? Try: The panel refused to take a stand on the Patriot Act. Instead, it recommended that the executive branch make a case for "retaining a particular governmental power" and suggested there be a "full and informed debate."

And here's wrong-headed: As Judge Richard A. Posner, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, noted in his new book, "Preventing Surprise Attacks, Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11," the panel was wrong to push for more centralized intelligence and Washington was wrong to heed that call. As Posner noted over the phone yesterday, "Whenever you take a bunch of agencies and pretend to turn them into one agency," there is a loss of momentum as employees worry about their jobs and work at re-establishing a chain of command. "These reorganizations generally do more harm than good."

Another problem with "blame commissions," as Posner called this panel: "One unfortunate consequence is that the people who get blamed for an undesired outcome are the people who were doing their best -- and their best may have been very good -- to prevent it from happening," Posner wrote. So, as America was clamoring for better intelligence, the panel issued recommendations designed to "weaken the CIA."

I prefer Posner's recommendations to those of the 9-11 commission: Detailed evacuation plans for major buildings, biometric screening by U.S. Customs officers at ports of entry, inspecting incoming freight, better airline passenger screening, training more Americans in Arabic, Farsi and other languages, more spies, diverting money from the "war on drugs" to counterterrorism and creating "a domestic security agency on the model of England's M15."

It would help if Americans -- and the media -- got real about how you fight terror. They demand better intelligence, but are hostile to the CIA. Critics want the government to discover domestic terrorist plots, but oppose the Patriot Act.

It's time for the American media to stop expecting perfection. There seems to be a crusade for a war without setbacks and for intelligence-gathering that doesn't invade anyone's privacy. That's simply and utterly unrealistic.

There is also an odd hubris in expecting any set of recommendations to prevent, "surprise" attacks. Acting on panel recommendations, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, boasted that "just as the National Security Act of 1947 (which established the CIA) was passed to prevent another Pearl Harbor, the Intelligence Reform Act" -- which she authored -- "will help us prevent another 9-11." As Posner noted, "She overlooked the fact that 9-11 was another Pearl Harbor."

And, let me add, Collins is the chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which produced a pork-heavy homeland security bill earlier this year.

Posner observed, "Our government has somehow gotten into a position where it's extremely difficult to accomplish anything."

I'd say that it's nearly impossible. What Americans don't need, they get -- pronto. A top-heavy intelligence apparatus has already made it through Congress: Washington can overload a bureaucracy in record time. But the radio spectrum for first responders is simply too practical to be urgent.

Too many of the same people who demanded the 9-11 commission to protect against future attacks also have been ready to kick intelligence workers for their every mistake. That's simply not intelligent.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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