Investigation trepidation

October 31, 2002

LITTLE WONDER President Bush is wary of the role politics might play in an investigation of administrative agencies by a congressionally appointed panel. Capitol Hill Republicans gleefully poked into every nook and cranny of the Clinton administration in overblown inquiries that often smacked of grandstanding. Hill Democrats have not demonstrated they are above such tactics.

But the president's concern does not justify his current tactic of blocking the creation of a commission to investigate the myriad failures -- in policy, security, communication and intelligence -- that helped make the nation vulnerable to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He has taken the view that if he can't control the commission, there won't be one. That serves neither him nor the country.

The bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees concluded last month, more than a year after the attacks, that their panels were not up to the task of performing the exhaustive inquiry required to determine where mistakes were made and how to avoid them in the future.

The intelligence committees had learned much about missed clues and faulty communication within and between federal agencies. After six months of inquiry, they ran out of time, and were unable to conduct the broad review of policies and practices far beyond the intelligence communities that may have contributed to the nation being caught unaware by the attacks and bewildered in its response.

Once the intelligence committees' leaders endorsed the proposal to create an outside investigating commission, the White House dropped its previous opposition to the commission and signed on as well.

But shortly thereafter, the White House torpedoed a House-Senate compromise version of the proposal, and prevented its enactment before Congress recessed this month for the last three weeks of the election campaign.

Two key points remain in dispute.

The White House insists that its one appointee to the 10-member commission serve as chairman, and that a minimum of six members be required to approve subpoenas -- rather than five -- so that one party couldn't act alone on a panel evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

Agreeing to the president's demands would thus give him control of the commission and veto power over subpoenas. An independent, freewheeling investigation could hardly be conducted under those terms. Yet such a sweeping inquiry is what Sept. 11 families are demanding and the country deserves.

Mr. Bush would be wise to get out of the way.

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