Make haste slowly on September 11
Published March 24, 2004
Today, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks -- informally known as the September 11 Commission -- will conclude its high-profile public hearing into the development and conduct of U.S. counter-terrorism policy during the critical period in which al Qaeda planned and executed its horrific attack on American soil. The commission's work may at the margins be useful, but it has already been so polluted by partisanship that board members may wish to consider delaying the release of the final product.
The commission's task is a difficult one, reminiscent of the Latin proverb "make haste slowly." It must painstakingly examine all the "could haves" and "should haves" in the events that led to September 11, but must expeditiously make recommendations to prevent a similar attack.
Inevitably, the commission's findings will have political implications. Recognizing that they could be used in such a manner, the administration and House Speaker Dennis Hastert initially insisted that the commission report as ordered on May 27. The administration has already made and acted on decisions regarding the prevention of future attacks by establishing the Department of Homeland Security and pursing al Qaeda with military force in Yemen, the Philippines and Afghanistan.
The commission's final report could become a comparative case study between the starkly different approaches to fighting terrorism at the heart of this presidential election -- the largely diplomatic and law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism pursued by the Clinton administration and endorsed by the Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry vs. the more aggressive approach that has been pursued by the Bush administration.
While the flaws it finds should be fixed without delay, its final judgments should be reserved until they can be considered in the quiet of the post-election season.
Partisans are already playing political hardball on the commission. According to sources familiar with the process, commission member Timothy Roemer has been working with former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke. That Mr. Clarke will be interrupting his book promotion in order to testify today simply puts the capital "P" of partisanship into the process. So does the final report's new release date of July 26, the same day that the Democratic convention is scheduled to open.
The commission's hearings have already been stained by the rancor of the political season. Every sentence of the final report will be the product of political log rolling and calculations -- not objective rational analysis. Given its rank politicizing, the commission is unlikely to provide the sort of after-action analysis that would be useful to those in the service of national security -- those conclusions will have to be developed quietly in various government agencies over the next several years.