Out of Commission

Posted: Apr 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Let?s shut down the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- the September 11 Commission. After all, what?s the point? 

According to its Web site, the commission ?is chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. The Commission is also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.?

However, the second sentence explains the only part that really matters. After all, everyone knows we were attacked. Everyone knows we weren?t as prepared as we should have been. So while it?s important to determine exactly what we did wrong, the reason that?s important is not so we can assign blame. It?s so we can prevent the next attack.

It became clear the commission?s investigation wasn?t going to succeed when people in the audience started clapping.

 Some clapped when former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey announced, ?I?m terribly worried that the military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they?re all bad.?

 Others clapped when National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice responded, ?I?m aware, Mr. Kerrey, of a speech that you gave at that time that said that perhaps the best thing that we could do to respond to the Cole ? was to do something about the threat of Saddam Hussein.?

One side wants to pin all the blame on the Bush administration while another side wants to claim the administration did nothing wrong. So supporters of each side cheer when their representative scores a partisan point.

Come on. This isn?t a basketball game where one team just hit a three-pointer. It?s (or it?s supposed to be) an investigation into why 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists. There will be no ?winners? here, and nothing worthy of applause.

I suppose it?s comforting for some to attempt to go back to the old politics of impeachment and ?stolen? elections. But we need to recognize those partisan differences existed in a pre-Sept. 11 universe. They?re gone now. Or, they should be.

Part of that requires admitting mistakes, and Rice edged in that direction. ?The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them,? she said. ?For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America?s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient.?

But the administration should also say, ?Yes, we weren?t completely focused on terrorism before Sept. 11. It was a priority, but not the priority. Nor, for that matter, was it the priority for the Clinton administration.

 ?But it is now, and we?re doing everything we can to prevent future attacks. That?s going to mean doing things that are unpopular. It?s going to mean invading Iraq. It?s going to mean having folks take their shoes off at the airport. It?s going to mean reinforcing cockpit doors and arming pilots. It?s going to mean having the Patriot Act to make it easier for the FBI and the CIA to share information.?

None of these things were happening before Sept. 11. In fact, many of these things would have been politically impossible. Remember what life was like in the summer of 2001:

· Democrats complained the president was taking too lengthy a vacation. The longest break since the Nixon administration, it was said. As a New York Times editorial put it on Aug. 7, 2001, ?Now that George W. Bush has settled in for the month at his Texas ranch, Americans can look forward to the resumption of that vacation tradition in which the president disappears from public view while aides hold briefings on how hard he is working behind the scenes.? Almost snarky enough for a Maureen Dowd column.

· Meanwhile, the Senate basically took a month off to ?reorganize? after Jim Jeffords switched parties and left the Democrats in control. During this time, very little business was conducted in the world?s most important deliberative body.

· We were discussing funding for embryonic stem-cell research. In fact, President Bush?s first nationally televised prime time address dealt with stem cells.

· A handful of shark attacks dominated the news, even earning a Time magazine cover story.

Important issues, all. But, sadly, none had anything to do with terrorist threats.
The clich?s ?everything changed? on Sept. 11. Well, not everything. But some things. And one of them should be that we don?t spend our time playing politics. This means that, rather than looking back, piecing together individual sentences from hundreds of memos and pointlessly finding fault, we ought to be using the past to help predict the future.

We need more intelligence. We need better intelligence. We need to hire some people who can think like terrorists. We don?t know where the next attack will be, or how it?ll be carried out. But we must find out. This commission doesn?t seem to be attempting to do that, but somebody needs to.