IF PRESIDENT BUSH knows what's good for the country--and we think he does--he will immediately appoint an independent, blue-ribbon commission to investigate the government's failure to anticipate and adequately prepare for the terrorist attacks of September 11. Make George Shultz and Sam Nunn co-chairmen. Give the commission full and unfettered access to all intelligence from the CIA and FBI and to all relevant internal administration documents. Instruct the commission to produce a public report in six months that can stand as the definitive judgment of what went wrong and why.
There are three reasons such an investigation is necessary. First, the administration is now in danger of looking as if it has engaged in a cover-up. The carefully worded and evasive statements by various administration spokesmen in response to the report of the president's August 6 CIA briefing have raised as many questions as they have answered. We understand the conundrum that administration spokesmen face. They can't be precise about what they did or didn't know without revealing classified information. We also presume the administration has nothing to hide. But the cat is out of the bag. The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, says that "we've just scratched the surface." The country needs to be assured that a reputable and unbiased group is going beneath the surface to find the truth.
Nor can we assume that the investigation already in progress by a special joint congressional committee will do the trick. Given the vulgar partisanship into which most elected officials descended last week, we have no confidence that any congressional committee can come up with a reputable and authoritative report.
Furthermore, regardless of what Congress does, the president should order an investigation for the sake of accountability within the executive branch. Ever since September 11 we have been troubled and puzzled that almost no one in the government seems to have been held responsible--much less, heaven forbid, stepped forward to assume responsibility--for failure. Was what happened on September 11 the consequence of everyone doing their job perfectly? Can it really be that no one made a mistake? And if someone did make a mistake, shouldn't that someone be held accountable, just a little? People lose jobs in government for hiring nannies and forgetting to pay their taxes. In the military, officers resign when something goes wrong on their watch, even if they were personally blameless for what happened. Isn't it possible that some people should be reprimanded, or even lose their jobs, when 3,000 Americans are killed in a terrorist attack? For the past eight months the Bush administration has essentially been saying that everything and everyone worked just fine. That is absurd and unsustainable.
And, of course, it's perilous. The third reason we need an investigation is that the system did not work. Either we didn't have the intelligence we should have had before September 11. Or the information was not adequately distributed and therefore key signals were missed. Or the intelligence was assembled but wasn't taken seriously enough. Or it was taken seriously but insufficient action was taken to prevent an attack. We don't know where the system broke down. We only know that it did.
Surely the first step in fixing the system--and thereby defending ourselves against the next attack--is to identify what went wrong or who performed badly. Isn't anyone troubled by the fact that if the failure stemmed partly from incompetence, then the incompetent people are still at their vitally important posts? Isn't President Bush troubled? If it was the system that failed, then should that same system be left in place because no one is willing to take a hard look at how and why it failed?
We understand the administration's reluctance to go through this wrenching process. We understand, too, why the president's supporters are reluctant to demand an investigation. It was nauseating last week to watch Democratic politicians trying to score cheap points against President Bush, treating this most serious of questions as if it were another made-to-order Washington scandal. "What we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House, knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it, and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time," said Dick Gephardt smarmily, desperately trying to fasten blame on the president la Watergate.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration, too, has gone into scandal mode--into a defensive crouch. Vice President Dick Cheney came out swinging, claiming that any criticism, even a call for an investigation of the administration's actions before September 11, was "thoroughly irresponsible . . . in a time of war." But he's wrong. It's precisely because we're in a war that we need an investigation to find out where we failed. After Pearl Harbor, there were half a dozen such investigations. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the first--just after Pearl Harbor. President Bush should follow that war president's lead. Then he should get back to the business of winning the war.
--William Kristol and Robert Kagan