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A Closer Look At The 9/11 Commission Report:
The Role It is Playing In Election Politics, And Its Recommendations For Preventing Future Terrorism


Friday, Jul. 30, 2004

The final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- better know as the 9/11 Commission -- is an impressive document. It was very carefully and thoughtfully done, and it is remarkably non-partisan.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney had wanted no investigation whatsoever of 9/11. As a result, they effectively "slow walked and stonewalled" - in Senator John McCain's words -- the joint Congressional inquiry and the early work of the 9/11 Commission.

For this reason, few people had believed the public would ever see the detailed information provided in the Commission's report. Happily, however, expectations were defied - and the report is remarkably comprehensive. And while Bush and Cheney would doubtless have preferred to put this report on the shelf, as would the Republican leadership of the Congress, that is not going to happen.

If anyone wants to understand what happened on that fateful day, they must read this report. Fortunately, it is quite readable. While it's not a James Patterson novel, it is, at least, not written with the usual bureaucratic language of a government report. And because it is so real, it is at times breathtaking. (Notably, the 9/11 Commission does not focus on Iraq's purported Weapons of Mass Destruction. President Bush has his own, largely partisan panel studying this intelligence failure.)

In this column, I will address a few of the salient matters and recommendations in the Commission's report - and note, as well, the role the report is already playing, and may continue to play, with respect to the upcoming elections.

How The 9/11 Commission Report Is Affecting Election Year Politics

The Commission's report has become an integral part of this year's presidential election politics.

Following the report's release, Senator John Kerry has made sure to have a copy of it present during several of his interviews. In addition, he has called for an extension of the Commission's mandate, so that, no matter who becomes our next President, the Commission can assist Congress and the Executive Branch in implementing its recommendations -- not to mention monitor for all Americans their progress in doing so.

The Senate Government Affairs Committee, under the direction of Senators Joe Lieberman (D - CN) and Susan Collins (R - ME), plans to begin public hearings on the recommendations of the Commission next week. In addition, the Senate's action has caused the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives to change their tune, and they too are now planning to act sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, President Bush has tasked his White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, to head up a study group relating to the report. The group will work with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to determine how to implement those recommendations of Commission that the White House believes can (and should) appropriately be adopted by Executive Order.

Even Vice President Cheney has been seen carrying a copy of the Commission's report when campaigning in the West. The New York Times reports that Cheney told one group that he had read about half of it. "I think that you will find the report engrossing," Cheney said. "I don't agree with absolutely everything that is in it, but I think it is very well done." He added, "I think they deserve a lot of credit for having taken on a tough assignment, and they deserve our thanks."

The Report Contains Big, Helpful Doses Of Realism

It is not surprising that the Vice President does not agree with everything in the report, for to do so would require the Bush Administration in general, and Cheney in particular, to concede errors, miscalculations, and false statements.

That is not the case because the Commission is not pointing an accusing finger; rather, they avoided doing so. (That decision no doubt assisted the ten commissioners -- all highly political people - in completing a unanimous report.) But reading between the lines, it's hard to come away thinking well of the Bush Administration. In fact, a close reading of the report shows that it is laced with countless - and often, harsh and unforgiving -- criticisms of Bush, Cheney and others (particularly Attorney General John Ashcroft).

I found the report refreshingly realistic. For example, the Commission concluded that it did not think it possible "to defeat all terrorists attacks against Americans," and advised that the "president should tell the American people" that he cannot "promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again." The Commission found that history showed even the most vigilant cannot "prevent determined, suicidal attackers from reaching a target."

However, the Commission wisely made equally clear that "the American people are entitled to expect their government" will undertake to do its best in preventing further terrorism, by developing "realistic objectives, clear guidance, and effective organization" to meet the problem.

For me, the core and greatest significance of the Commission's report lay in its recommendations of what should be done to deal with future terror attacks, and how it ought to be accomplished.

"Soft" Recommendations: The Commission's Advice On Battling Terrorists

To begin, it's important to note that in addition to its formal, "hard" recommendations, the report contains what I call "soft" recommendations: the proposals, suggestions, advice and counsel woven into the narrative of the report.

One theme of the report that struck me as both laudably realistic -- and pointedly critical of the Bush approach to terrorism - was the Commission's repudiation of the idea of a "war on terrorism."

"Terrorism is a tactic used by individuals and organizations to kill and destroy," the Commission's report reminds the reader, in a section entitled "More Than a War on Terrorism." The Commission also stresses that "long-term success demands the uses of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense."

In short, tanks and troops alone will not win this struggle. Rather, much more is required than a focus on military planning and procedures. Indeed, the Commission calls for a very different approach than that of the Bush Administration -- an attack that focuses directly on terrorists and their organizations. For example, the Commission recommends the following:

. Identifying the enemy, prioritizing actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries, and making certain that such sanctuaries are stabilized once they are rid of terrorists. Plainly, Afghanistan - once such sanctuary - is not yet stabilized.

. Engaging in the struggle of ideas, which the United States is losing in the Muslim world. Rather as was done during the Cold War, America must define and defend its values.

. Increasing protection against, and preparation for, terrorist attacks. Terrorist travel needs to be more effectively tracked and controlled, worldwide. The U.S. must work in cooperation with other nations, not unilaterally, for we cannot do it alone. And at home, given the fact that resources are not unlimited, risk-based priorities must be set and then defended by stakeholders.

"Hard" Recommendations: The Commission's Specific Proposals

The Commissioners agreed on some forty-three black letter, or "hard," recommendations. I doubt there will be much debate about those that address what needs to be done. Rather, divisions are more likely to arise over the recommendations of how the Federal government should organize itself to address the problems that must be solved.

The Commission found that breakdown of communications within the intelligence community was a central problem, and the reason the terrorists were able to execute their diabolical plot. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Commission's principal recommendation is to remedy this situation by reorganizing this activity of the government.

In offering its "hard" recommendations, the Commission also explains how they can best be implemented. The closing chapter of the report -- "How To Do It? A Different Way Of Organizing The Government -- contains a consistently repeated refrain: the need for greater "unity" of government operations in dealing with terrorists.

The Commission found the existing national security apparatus was "constructed to win the Cold War." It is outmoded. No longer do we have a few dangerously powerful adversaries, rather the nation "confronts a number of less visible challenges that surpass the boundaries of the traditional nation-states and call for quick, imaginative, and agile responses."

To face this new challenge, the Commission calls for restructuring government in major areas to "unify" operations. More specifically, the Commission seeks:

. To place the gathering of strategic intelligence and operational planning against Islamist terrorists, across the foreign-domestic divide, in a new National Counterterrorism Center;

. To bring the entire national security intelligence community together under a new National Intelligence Director;

. To create a network-based information-sharing system for all the players in counterterrorism;

. To develop a specialized and integrated national security workforce within the FBI "consisting of agents, analysts, linguists, and surveillances specialists" who are "imbued with a deep expertise in intelligence and national security";

. To ensure that, in order to assure that this work is carried out at the highest standards, Congress reorganizes its oversight committees of the House and Senate to better monitor the government's activities.

It appears that the most controversial of these recommendations will be the creation of the office of National Intelligence Director, with operational and budgetary authority over the entire national security community. None of the now-entrenched bureaucracies are going to want to change their ways, and yield their powers.

A Suggestion the 9/11 Commission Did Not Offer: A Directorate

There is one solution to this problem, however, that the Commission did not offer. The solution is this: Don't create a director, but rather a directorate, of the nation's intelligence.

Intelligence gathering, and studies (or oversight) of intelligence gathering, have become highly political. The directorate option could help to eliminate the politics that would surely surround the appointment of a new intelligence czar. For the directorate should be bipartisan, with two heads: a Republican and a Democrat.

Good choices for the posts? How about 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton? Just as the founders were able to write Article II of the U.S. Constitution outlining the presidency with George Washington in mind, Kean and Hamilton have demonstrated their credentials to fill this new post.

Since this is the most important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, no persons are more qualified to put it, and the other recommendations, into action. Nor has there ever been a better occasion to take corrosive politics out of a process - the fight against terrorism - of vital importance to the nation.

Note: Click here for related material from FindLaw on Terrorism Laws and Terror-Related Cases. - Ed.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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