Better late than never

September 26, 2002

MORE THAN A YEAR after a devastating sneak attack was orchestrated on American soil, Congress is finally on the verge of launching an independent outside investigation of why the nearly 3,000 killed were left so utterly unprotected. The national bipartisan commission being created to conduct the inquiry is long overdue, but more welcome than ever.

From what a much narrower probe by the congressional intelligence committees has learned so far, it's clear there were plenty of warning signals that went unheeded by the leaders of the intelligence community. One exasperated FBI agent predicted fatefully to headquarters officials just days before the attacks that "someday someone will die [and] the public will not understand why we were not more effective."

But a broader look beyond the intelligence agencies is also required to examine what was really a multiple system failure.

Everything that could go wrong did - from border security, to immigration monitoring, to airline passenger screening, to coordination with state and local agencies.

The nation was also scandalously unprepared to respond effectively with rescue efforts in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rescuers soon numbered among the victims.

Only a truly independent board made up of respected citizens committed to doing an exhaustively thorough job can produce a report that satisfactorily explains these failures and makes practical recommendations for avoiding them in the future.

President Bush resisted such an inquiry until just last week, when his opposition threatened to become not only futile but also politically embarrassing. Families of the victims have been in the forefront of the drive to launch an independent review, and were aggressively pressing their case just before Mr. Bush shifted position.

In jumping onto the commission bandwagon, however, Mr. Bush is seeking to inject himself into the debate over its composition, scope and powers as the Senate and House work to reconcile differences between competing versions.

That suggests the president learned nothing from his attempts to manipulate the inquiry by the intelligence committees, prompting members of his own party to complain that he was withholding critical information about his own advance knowledge of a potential attack.

Partly because of the difficulties encountered by the intelligence committees, the Senate voted 90-8 this week in favor of a much more sweeping independent probe than had been backed earlier by the House. It would create a 10-member panel appointed by congressional leaders, with Democrats and Republicans having an equal say. None of the members would be an elected official, but they would have the investigative powers and security clearances to pursue the inquiry wherever it leads.

Mr. Bush should help make sure that proposal becomes law quickly so the commission can get on with its important work.

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