So long urgency, hello indulgence

Posted: Sep 28, 2002 12:00 AM
This must be what a phony war feels like. Having first ventured out of the bunker united as we clutched our flags, fought fear and braced for battle, we now enjoy the fragile complacence of daily routines that can no longer be taken for granted. Except, of course, that they are being taken for granted. Strangely enough, there's little sense of having returned to "life as usual" with any understanding of the essential urgency of the mission before us: to neutralize the terrorist forces of jihadist Islam. Having accepted the basic survival strategies of life as civilian targets -- invasive security checks, time-consuming travel routines and the rest -- we now face the metaphysical danger that one day a yellow security alert will be considered downright cozy. Adaptability is an asset, but there comes a point at which it has more to do with defeat than survival. It may sound as if I'm still not over the quilts, ballets and anchor soliloquies of Sept. 11 -- the network extravaganza -- but that's not it. Nor does this disaffection have anything to do with those ghastly commemoratives in marble and bronze that keep popping up to bring us revels of pain and death when what we really need is a sculpture of an avenging angel or two on a white steed. Somewhat amazingly, it doesn't even stem from this week's Democratic efforts to depict the administration's war policy, long in the making, as a suddenly concocted political ploy that doesn't merit electoral consideration. What is most perplexing is the U.S. Senate's idea of what it means to take action. After two weeks of public hearings on intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11, it voted overwhelmingly to create a blue-ribbon panel to ... investigate such failures further. Imagine: Senators could hear, for example, the harrowing testimony of a special agent whose repeated requests to launch a manhunt for Khalid Almihdhar, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, as late as Aug. 29, 2001, were turned down by the FBI's legal arm, and be inspired only to initiate another inquiry. "Someday, someone will die," the agent wrote nearly two weeks before the attacks in a scathingly bitter and prophetic e-mail to headquarters, "and (legal) wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not effective and throwing every resource we had at certain 'problems.' Let's hope the National Security Law Unit will stand behind their decisions then, especially since the biggest threat to us now, UBL [Osama bin Laden], is getting the most protection.'" I'm just wondering whether a VIP panel is really necessary to look up who runs the National Security Law Unit, see whether they're standing behind their decisions, and determine how long it will take them to clean out their desks. But maybe I'm missing something. Indeed, as the Washington Post explained, the 90-8 vote authorizing the commission "reflected a mounting consensus in both parties that the current congressional probe into intelligence failures pointed to the need for a more far-reaching inquiry." Seems that we needed a "probe" to determine that we really needed an "inquiry." Accordingly, congressional leaders will soon pick a panel of worthies from outside government (if such exist) and give them subpoena powers, a $3 million budget and a mandate to file an "initial" report in six months. The final report, the one with the actual recommendations, won't appear for another year after that. Assuming the panel is chosen before Congress adjourns, that means no blue-ribbon advice before May 2004. At this rate, even the U.N. arms inspectors should beat them back to town. Feel more secure? Frankly, it's a bit scary to imagine senators believing a report 18 or 20 months down the road could be anything other than a historical curio. That is, the panel's findings might well serve scholars and archivists (should they still be in business), but it's hard to imagine them being of use to a nation at war. More disturbing still is the thought of our leaders believing we have 20 months to wait -- for anything. What this vote reveals is a troubling indulgence in leisure that certainly should have been a casualty of last year's attacks. President Bush long opposed this independent commission, believing it would open a new sluice gate of security leaks and monopolize the time of those whose job it is to prosecute a war. Too bad he changed his mind. The big, broad bipartisan inquiry is a task for peacetime. In a war, even a phony war, the government is too busy -- or should be -- working out the future to use precious time and resources sorting out the past.