WASHINGTON--The Bush administration is in a quandary which is, as Washington quandaries so often are, partly self-inflicted. There is only one way out of the growing--tardily growing; by no means grown too large--controversy about investigating intelligence inadequacies prior to Sept. 11. The way out for the administration is to go through an investigation, and not one conducted by itself.
Eleven days. That is how long it took President Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor to appoint a blue-ribbon commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, to examine what was known, and what should have been, prior to Dec. 7, 1941.
More than 250 days have passed since Sept. 11. Last week, one of the most dispiriting in recent Washington history, the administration seemed surly and defensive regarding the inevitably rising tide of questions about governmental intelligence operations before the terrorist attacks.
Understandably, the administration was provoked by some Democrats' crassness in casting their questions in Watergate-era cadences--what did the president know and when did he know it? Actually, a blue-ribbon commission, concerning itself with all three branches of government, almost certainly would vindicate President Bush, who, after all, initiated the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing on the threat of al Qaeda operations in the United States.
The commission also would find that Congress has already begun correcting some problems--for example, belatedly funding modernization of FBI computers, more than 13,000 of which were too old to be compatible with crucial software last year. Given the rapid multiplication of new means of communication, from cell phones to the Internet, the commission should recommend revisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978. The commission should evaluate judicial standards of probable cause when law enforcement agencies seek wiretaps, access to computer hard drives and bank records, and other forms of surveillance covered by Fourth Amendment privacy protections.
The commission should be balanced between Republicans and Democrats but should have an even number of members to underscore the assumption that its proceedings are not expected to be internally adversarial, producing party-line votes and requiring a tie-breaker. A commission of sufficient prestige can perhaps impart to its recommendations momentum that will overwhelm the institutional rivalries that can make national security a hostage to jurisdictional jealousies. So the co-chairmen of the commission should be former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat.
Shultz, who also was secretary of labor and of treasury and was the first head of the Office of Management and Budget, has had more high-level government experience than perhaps any American in history. And his memoir of his six and a half years running President Reagan's State Department, ``Turmoil and Triumph," contains this laconic sentence: ``Our knowledge of the Kremlin was thin, and the CIA, I found, was usually wrong about it.'' Nunn has a long-standing interest in a matter of increasing urgency: Russia's surplus nuclear weapons.
Sens. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat, and Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican, with considerable experience on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees respectively, can represent the legislative branch. Former Sen. Jack Danforth, the Missouri Republican, having conducted the investigation of the 1993 Waco disaster, understands investigating government misadventures. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the Indiana Democrat, served on the International Relations Committee for 34 years. Professor Donald Kagan of Yale, author of ``On the Origins of War,'' would bring a historian's understanding to the challenge of making retrospective judgments about events viewed through the lens of present knowledge.
The eighth and final member of the commission could be former Sen. Pat Moynihan. He was vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee--and in 1984 he resigned from it until CIA Director William Casey apologized for not informing the committee of CIA involvement in mining Nicaraguan harbors.
In his book ``Secrecy: The American Experience,'' Moynihan says it is an iron law of institutions that the ratio of unnecessary to necessary secrecy increases--including secrecy maintained by one part of the government against other parts. President Truman could have used the proof, contained in intercepted messages between the Soviet Union and its agents in America, of the espionage by Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs--but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff kept it from him.
Secrecy renders societies susceptible to epidemics of suspicion. A blue- ribbon commission would be immunization against such an epidemic, and would be preventive medicine against future failures. The administration and the nation need to go through it.