Let's learn from lapses of Sept. 11

May 22, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the current blame game over the Bush administration's failure to detect the Sept. 11 attacks in advance, there's a certain amount of unreality going on.

For openers, what were the Democrats blaming the president for? Not, certainly, for knowing such a devastating attack was coming against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and not doing anything about it. Only the most jaundiced would believe any such thing.

It wasn't necessary, therefore, for the president to make that steely-eyed, jut-jawed declaration before the television cameras that had he known what was coming, he would have done everything within his power to prevent it. Of course he would have. In saying so, he was knocking down a straw man.

And what was Sen. Hillary Clinton thinking when she quoted that preposterous New York tabloid headline, "Bush Knew," in taking to the Senate floor to demand more information about, as Republican Sen. Howard Baker famously asked in the Watergate investigation of nearly three decades ago, what did the president know and when did he know it? It was small wonder that presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer went into high dudgeon denouncing her for alluding to it.

In a way, however, it's surprising that members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, held their tongues as long as they did on raising questions about the intelligence failures involved. It can be argued that Sept. 11 was the darkest day in American history in terms of a domestic tragedy. The immense rush of patriotism unleashed by it shoved any second-guessing to a far back burner, especially as the president launched the American military response in Afghanistan.

Now that some information has come to light indicating intelligence community failures, especially within the FBI, it's both natural and necessary that there be a thorough examination of what broke down in the communications and analysis systems of that community so they aren't repeated.

President Bush can't be blamed for not knowing what was coming, but he sure can be held accountable for what is done now about the intelligence breakdown.

Some key Democrats in Congress, and even some Republicans, are demanding the appointment of a nonpartisan national commission to investigate, in the manner of the Warren Commission that scrutinized all the facts and rumors around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That commission was itself subject to second-guessing long afterward in its judgment that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Leading administration Republicans, including Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, want no part of such a commission. They argue that the joint investigation already under way by the congressional intelligence committees, headed in the House by a Republican and in the Senate by a Democrat, can be trusted with the task. Some Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, agree.

But a good case can be made for a separate, private panel of distinguished Americans staffed with intelligence experts not tied to either party. While President Bush is not a defendant in the matter, his administration already is under fire in other circumstances as excessively self-protective and given to resisting congressional demands for information.

Mr. Cheney last week was already calling on Democrats in Congress to lay off, lest they impair the administration's war on terrorism. He could well profit from his own subsequent advice on Sunday's Meet the Press, when he said: "We'd all be better off if everybody sort of cooled off and calmed down, [and] operated based on assumptions about the good faith of one another."

That observation was overshadowed by Mr. Cheney's warning that another terrorist attack is "almost certain" and could come "tomorrow" or later. Mr. Bush, having been hit for not passing on the warnings he received before Sept. 11, and his administration appear disinclined, in the heated political climate, to leave themselves open to similar charges from now on.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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