The Magazine

Not Worth a Blue Ribbon

From the August 16 / August 23, 2004 issue: The conventional (and unhelpful) wisdom of the 9/11 Commission.

Aug 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 46 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE 9/11 COMMISSION says it wants to have a national debate about its report. Actually, that's not quite true. It would prefer that the Bush administration and Congress, feeling the heat of its bipartisan mandate, submit quickly and completely to its collective and deliberate judgments. The Bush administration apparently would rather not fold so quickly. Yet Senator John Kerry's immediate embrace of the lengthy document and its recommendations, and the commissioners' intention to turn themselves into a continuing, nationwide road show, have made this report, like the commission's televised hearings, into a political drama with possible repercussions on the elections in November. Senator Kerry would love to berate the president, as well as the Republican-controlled Congress, for dallying with America's security and the war against terrorism, which will probably be the decisive issue in the presidential campaign. The administration is running for cover. It has embraced the core recommendations of the commission--the creation of a new national intelligence director and a new National Counterterrorist Center--without accepting all the bureaucratic rewiring and fiscal and hiring-and-firing authority that the commission wants to give to this intelligence czar.

It might not be politically astute to play hardball with the 9/11 Commission, but the Bush administration would be on solid intelligence ground in doing so. Though one can find sound criticisms and recommendations among those made by the commission, the report overall is quintessential blue-ribbon Washington: conventional, conservative, and exuberantly bureaucratic in its analysis and solutions. Like so many earlier post-Cold War commissions and think-tank reports about the state of American intelligence, it tackles the intelligence community--particularly the Central Intelligence Agency--from the top down, not the bottom up. If we can just get the bureaucracy, ever bigger and more centralized, married to the right management, better things will follow. Operationally, the commission's report simply does not address the principal problem of America's intelligence effort against Islamic extremism--the failure of the CIA to develop a clandestine service with a methodology and officers capable of penetrating the Islamic holy-warrior organizations in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. And analytically, the report's bureaucratic recommendations are unlikely to improve the quality of the U.S. government's thinking about counterterrorism--indeed, they could make intelligence analysis more monochromatic and defined by groupthink than it already is.

Worst of all, the report fails to tackle seriously the overarching policy lesson from 9/11--the need to strike first. The failure to preempt--and after al Qaeda's attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the failure to provide self-defense--is the underlying theme of the historical narrative of the 9/11 report. The stark gravity of this theme, and the general merit of the narrative--which is well written, incisive, and politically damning (vastly more so of the Clintonites' eight years than of the Bushies' eight months)--make the conventional and sometimes sophomoric quality of the recommendations that follow all the more off-putting.

The 9/11 Commission dutifully recites all of the domestic and international circumstances conducive to the American government's failure to use military intimidation and force as the indispensable counterterrorist tools before 9/11. And it's hard to say which characters in the commission's story are the most enthusiastic in underscoring why the United States couldn't have confronted Osama bin Laden more aggressively before 9/11. Former defense secretary William Cohen, former Central Command chief General Anthony Zinni, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton, the former chief analyst at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center Paul Pillar, President Clinton's national security adviser Sandy Berger and attorney general Janet Reno deserve honorable mention. Two exceptions are the counterterrorist chief in the Clinton administration, Richard Clarke, and the CIA case officer Gary Schroen (with whom I once worked), who was always free of operational deceit and professional bravado. They are notable for their willingness to use force when most around them thought it unwise.