Members of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said Tuesday that President Bush did not go far enough when he promised to appoint a national director of intelligence, warning that the position could end up being a figurehead with little power to accomplish anything.
The president endorsed recommendations Monday by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that a national director have control of the government’s 15 intelligence agencies and that a national counterterrorism center should coordinate their operations. But he rejected the commission’s call that the director have complete authority over the intelligence community’s budgets, hiring and firing.
“Providing someone with a name and not the authority would be worse than nothing,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic lawyer who served on the commission.
Slade Gorton, a Republican former senator from Washington, said Bush’s announcement was a “step forward, but it’s only one step.” He said ensuring that a national intelligence director had full budget authority subject to formal congressional oversight was “perhaps the central priority” the commission identified in the 957-page report it turned in to the president July 22.
Ben-Veniste and Gorton were in Seattle as part of the commission’s nationwide campaign to drum up support for its recommendations. Although the commission’s formal mandate expires Aug. 26, its members intend to continue working as long as 18 more months to keep its urgent call for action in front of the public.
“Too many past commissions’ reports are gathering dust in Washington archives,” Ben-Veniste said.
Failure of imagination
One of the leading contributors to the government’s failure to foresee the Sept. 11 attacks was the bureaucratic thicket that had grown up around the intelligence agencies, Gorton said. The CIA never communicated with the FBI, and while various agencies had picked up numerous indications of imminent al-Qaida action, he said, vital FBI operatives had “little information at all.”
“Our federal governmental agencies failed,” Gorton said.
The answer is not more people, money or bureaucracy, he said, but creativity; many of the clues were there before Sept. 11, 2001, but none of it was collected in one place so a clever analyst could connect the dots.
“We don’t know how the Congress can pass a law mandating imagination,” he said.
Ben-Veniste said only an overall director with Cabinet-level authority would have the clout to cut through the red tape, which he said had already ensnared the Department of Homeland Security. Already, he said, Secretary Tom Ridge and his aides were wasting an enormous amount of time and effort responding to what the commission tabulated as 88 separate congressional oversight committees and subcommittees.
One of the fundamental problems the commission ran into was that “no one is in charge of the intelligence community,” Ben-Veniste said. “Who’s in charge? Who’s the quarterback?"
Moving the bureaucracy
Both commissioners said they were simultaneously surprised and gratified by how swiftly Bush and Congress had reacted to the report amid what Ben-Veniste called the “transcendent temporal concerns of the next election.”
“Change never comes quickly for bureaucracies,” he said, but it was encouraging that Bush had decided to take easier steps now.
Ben-Veniste told MSNBC.com that the threat from overseas terrorists was urgent and could not wait even for the release in March of a report by the separate commission investigating the specific handling of intelligence in Iraq. “The citizens of our nation have every right to demand” a response now, he said.
But the speed with which the government is moving — both houses of Congress have cut short the August recesses, a critical period in the campaign, to hold hearings — could lead to some of the commission’s recommendations’ being overlooked, they warned. Several times, they returned to security operations at the nation’s ports and borders.
Gorton noted that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the country at official checkpoints with altered or fake documents that border agents accepted as genuine, and he warned that even now, as much as 90 percent of marine shipments to the United States were not inspected until after they arrived.
Ben-Veniste called for a systematic reallocation of security funding to regions with active ports. “This is not a revenue-sharing program,” he said, meaning such money should be appropriated based strictly on need, not on political formulas. “Terrorists are most vulnerable when they travel.”
Make Uncle Sam smile
More also could be done to advance long-term efforts to restore the United States’ reputation among Muslim countries, Gorton said, urging more U.S. participation in overseas education, foreign aid and diplomatic programs.
“We have a message of hope in this country that needs to be exported to win the war of ideas,” he said. “We have to present America in a way that is life-offering rather than death-offering.”
At the same time, Ben-Veniste said, care must be taken not to focus so intently on Osama bin Laden that threats from other quarters are overlooked.
“The question of being ‘at war’ is an interesting and loaded question,” he said. “Al-Qaida declared war on us, but there are other groups.”
Both commissioners said it was pointless to assign blame for what happened in the past because there was still a massive job to be done. They frequently repeated the commission report’s refrain that America today is “safer, but not safe,” but Gorton offered further context:
“There’s a bomb out there, and the fuse is lit,” he said. If there is another attack, “then there’ll be no problem with the blame at all.”