Running out the clock

September 19, 2002

SOMETHING IS dangerously out of whack with the priorities of our national leaders. More than a year after terrorists masterfully executed a cold-blooded sneak attack on American soil, little has been done to ensure that the nation won't be similarly caught off guard in the future.

A congressional inquiry into the intelligence failures that left the United States vulnerable to the attacks is only now beginning to release its preliminary findings. Much work remains to be done just on identifying what went wrong. Far more work awaits on designing preventive solutions. But Congress is about to adjourn soon to campaign for the November election. Then comes Thanksgiving, then Christmas. January brings a new Congress.

When is this work going to get done, and what needless risks are Americans running in the meantime?

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham pronounced himself pleased yesterday at the progress made so far by the inquiry being conducted jointly with the counterpart committee in the House. Hard to believe he could keep a straight face.

Identifying the failures, shaping solutions and putting them into place should have been the first order of business in the immediate wake of the attacks last year. Instead, a combination of stonewalling by the Bush administration and congressional turf protection relegated this vital work to the back burner.

Amazingly, the Senate is currently embroiled in a battle over worker rules for a proposed new Department of Homeland Security while nothing has been done to ensure better communications between the spy agencies that might have been able to piece together clues pointing to the terrorists' plans. Neither the FBI nor the CIA is even to be included in the new department.

Families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have been lobbying since last fall for the creation of an independent, outside commission to conduct a wide-ranging investigation. They want a probe, similar to those conducted after other cataclysmic national events, that would examine not only intelligence failures but policy missteps as well. Their goal is to make sure everything possible that can be done is being done to avoid such a catastrophe in the future.

The Bush administration has vigorously resisted such an inquiry. First, the White House argued that it could not afford to divert resources from the war on terrorism to cooperate in any investigation. Then, as pressure for an outside probe built, the White House contended the intelligence committees of Congress were best suited for the job. Committee leaders were happy to protect their prerogative, but frustrated in their attempts to get information from an administration fearful of leaks.

In an almost comic sign of how dysfunctional their effort has become, the intelligence committees are being investigated by the FBI for allegedly leaking material from their investigation of the FBI.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain thinks the Bush administration is trying to run out the clock. The president can't be allowed to get away with that. It's time for an independent commission to take over.

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