A bold blueprint

July 25, 2004|By Daniel Goure

"BECAUSE OF offensive actions against al-Qaida since 9/11, and defensive actions to improve homeland security, we believe we are safer today. But we are not safe."

These two sentences constitute the bottom-line judgments of the 9/11 commission's long-awaited report. America has taken important steps to beat back the terrorist threat, carry the war to the enemy and enhance our defenses. But more must be done.

The report overall is factual, frank, balanced and thoughtful, characteristics that might surprise many observers who watched the partisan histrionics that seemed to dominate at a number of the commission's public hearings. It deals dispassionately with the tragic history of the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, cataloging what it terms warnings ignored, opportunities missed and outright failures by this nation's intelligence and security forces.

The report may be a disappointment for those who hoped that it would serve as a cudgel with which to beat the Bush administration or tarnish the reputation of its predecessor. The report is unsparing in its criticisms of both, and of many government departments and agencies and the Congress. Everyone was asleep at their posts.

As the report states, "The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise." Warnings were available, including of the possible use of hijacked commercial airliners as weapons, beginning in the early 1990s. Al-Qaida demonstrated its potential as an enemy with the African Embassy bombings in 1998. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations undertook diplomatic efforts and, in a few instances, military actions to weaken al-Qaida and kill or capture Osama bin Laden, but these were weak and desultory at best. Finally, the border and immigration controls were, for all practical purposes, nonexistent; four of the hijackers were in the United States more than a year before the attack.

Were it simply a catalog of failures, however well-written, the commission's report would be interesting reading only for historians and conspiracy buffs. But it is far more than that. The commissioners rightly concluded that while documenting the mistakes of the past was important, laying out a vision for the future was vital.

What makes the report so important is that is a forward-looking document. In fact, it is more; it is a strategic plan. What this nation has sorely lacked in the nearly three years since 9/11 is such a plan.

I am tempted to compare this report to National Security Council Document 68 and the subsequent 1947 National Security Act, which collectively laid out the basic strategy and organizational concepts that won the Cold War.

The report calls for a global strategy to defeat Islamic terrorism, which it defines as a politico-religious movement, an ideology no less dangerous than were fascism and communism in their days. In some ways it almost echoes President Bush's strategy of pre-emption with its call to root out actual and potential terrorist sanctuaries.

But it goes much further, calling for a broad political-economic-cultural campaign to prevent the continued growth of Islamic terrorism. This plan would transform the political-economic environment in parts of the Islamic world. The commission boldly calls for a new relationship with Saudi Arabia, one based on "a shared commitment to reform."

With respect to the defense of the homeland and organizing to defeat the threat, the commission proposes to build on the progress made since 9/11 in such areas as biometrics, transportation security and emergency preparedness. In particular, the report rightly calls for developing networked-based information-sharing capabilities, comprehensive solutions to empower all the departments and agencies involved in homeland security. The commissioners had the courage to acknowledge that the fight against Islamic terrorism will require expanded government powers to collect and share information on citizens and foreigners alike.

Finally, the commission took on the difficult task of organizational change. Here, unfortunately, the report lacks the boldness exhibited elsewhere. It proposes centralization of counterterrorism activities in a National Counterterrorism Center and a new layer of management, a national intelligence director, to oversee the entire intelligence community. This amounts to putting old eggs in new baskets.

At a time of extreme partisanship in virtually all aspects of national policy, the 9/11 commission accomplished a remarkable feat. It produced a bipartisan report, one that points the way forward. In so doing, it has enhanced national security and, equally important, contributed to the healing of the national psyche.

Daniel Goure is a vice president with the Lexington Institute and former director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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