Thwarting the terrorists

July 23, 2004

SO, NOW WE KNOW that there were 10 different occasions, over several years, when the U.S. government might have been able to thwart the Sept. 11, 2001, plot -- the last, horrifyingly, on the morning of the event, when hijackers were pulled aside for extra screening but then sent on their way. The security system in place at the time, as described by the report of the 9/11 commission that was released yesterday, almost worked.

That's tantalizing and heartbreaking and not good enough. Elements of the sort of structure that's needed are in place, but it's not all there yet.

That's what has led the commission to recommend a National Counterterrorism Center, staffed by people from various agencies, and an overall national intelligence director who would oversee all U.S. intelligence-gathering organizations. The idea is that only in this way can information and action be successfully coordinated within the government.

It might work. A single coordinator of intelligence could bring about an increase of information-sharing and a decrease in bureaucratic jealousy -- but not necessarily. And there is, on the other hand, a real risk that a streamlined intelligence bureaucracy would encourage groupthink. A great deal would depend on the quality of the people picked to fill the key slots, and their ability to keep politics at arm's length. The delicate task is to get people to work together, but not in lockstep.

A new structure must ensure that dissenting voices will be heard. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to prevent what the commission calls the "failure of imagination" that left the U.S. unprepared for 9/11.

Tough questions for this new national intelligence director should come from Congress, a body that has not distinguished itself for its oversight. The commission suggests new committees in the House and Senate specifically devoted to domestic security -- committees that would not be concerned with Department of Homeland Security pork and that would keep the big picture in focus. Pushing this reorganization through an inevitably resistant Congress will be a daunting task -- but it's an excellent idea.

But responding to 9/11 requires more than filling in boxes on a flow chart. At the end of the commission's detailed examination of what went wrong in 2001, there are a few seemingly high-minded recommendations -- yet these are ideas that could have the most far-reaching effects if carried out.

They call upon the United States to understand the forces driving Islamist extremism and to work to counteract them. The United States, it says, needs to demonstrate to the Islamic world -- through word and deed -- that it is not the Great Satan. Showing what America stands for is not a military or covert operation; it comes from cultural exchanges and graduate studies programs and a commitment to human rights and a general opening to the world rather than a sullen shutting down. Do that, and the battle's more than half won.

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