Sins of commission

Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Wall Street Journal

It was always a terrible idea for the Sept. 11 commission to drop its report in the middle of a presidential election campaign, and we are now seeing why. That body is turning into a fiasco of partisanship and political score-settling.

To be precise, Democrats are using the commission as a platform to assail the Bush administration for fumbling the war on terror, implicitly blaming it even for 9-11. That's the clear message of the testimony to be offered this week to the commission by former Clinton officials, who conveniently leaked their opinions to the New York Times in advance. Conveniently, too, former anti-terror aide Richard Clarke has chosen this week to begin the media tour for his new book pushing the same anti-Bush theme. He's also scheduled to meet the commission this week.

If you believe this is all a coincidence, you probably also believe that a reflective, nonpartisan look at the mindset that allowed 9-11 to happen is possible in today's Washington. It would be nice if it were. Democracies are notoriously bad at anticipating crises, and it would help future policy makers to have a thoughtful look at how and why we missed the al-Qaida threat as it was massing in the 1990s. In order to take such a detached view, the Pearl Harbor inquiry waited until after World War II to publish its findings.


The 9-11 Commission has instead been driven from the start by meaner political calculations: To appease the demands of those (few) victims' families looking for someone to blame, and to provide a vehicle to embarrass the Bush Administration. That's the real reason Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell -- two men who have acted in the past as statesmen -- were hounded out as the original commission leaders on trivial conflict-of-interest grounds.

Their replacements are the junior varsity and have been unable to lift the commission above narrow partisan scheming. Republican chairman Tom Kean, a former governor little schooled in defense and foreign affairs, is apparently oblivious to the political hardball being played around him. Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, an ex-member of Congress well-versed in national security, is a better choice.

But Mr. Hamilton has to contend with his fellow Democrats, who include hyper-partisans Richard Ben-Veniste, Jamie Gorelick and Tim Roemer. These three caucus weekly, reporting back regularly to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle for political fine-tuning.

Ms. Gorelick has her own clear conflict of interest: As Janet Reno's deputy attorney general, she had a major law enforcement role in combatting the terror threat. Her Administration's decision to handle the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 as a mere "law-enforcement" problem ought to be central to the commission's probe. She and Mr. Ben-Veniste also wouldn't mind being Attorney General in a Kerry Administration.

Inside the commission, these Members have been pushing the argument that Clinton officials warned the Bush Administration about al-Qaida, only to be ignored by men and women who were too preoccupied with Iraq and missile defense to care. So having failed to contain al-Qaida during its formative decade, and having made almost no mention of this grave threat in the 2000 campaign, these officials now want us to believe that in their final hours they urgently begged the Bushies to act with force and dispatch. Sure.

As for Mr. Clarke, he is now flacking his book by blaming the Bush Administration for failing to capture Osama bin Laden while offering the novel sociological insight (in last week's Time magazine) that "maybe we should be asking why the terrorists hate us." We'd take Mr. Clarke's words more seriously if, as America's lead anti-terror official from 1998 through Mr. Bush's first two years, he had warned someone that al-Qaida might have a strategy to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings. He already knew that an Egyptian had flown one plane into the drink and that al-Qaida was interested in flight training. Why didn't Mr. Clarke connect those dots? The author is also highly critical of both the Afghan and Iraq campaigns. But inside the Clinton and Bush Administrations, his main pre-9-11 counsel was to energize the proxy war in Afghanistan through the Northern Alliance to make life more difficult for the Taliban. This certainly would have helped in the mid-1990s when al-Qaida was massing in that country. But by 2001 it would have done nothing to break up the al-Qaida cells that were already operating in Florida and Germany and that carried out the 9-11 hijackings.

As for Iraq, he and other Bush critics want to claim that the U.S. invasion has only created more terrorists -- as if there weren't any before March 2003. And as if those terrorists are only striking at Americans and our allies in Iraq, not also at Turks, and Indonesians, French and Saudis.

Mr. Clarke lambastes the White House for seeking links between Iraq and 9-11, even as he himself asserts that he knew in the immediate aftermath that there were no such links. How could he have known that? Mr. Clarke fails to mention that Abdul Rahman Yasin, the one conspirator from the 1993 WTC bombing still at large, had fled to Iraq and was harbored by Saddam Hussein for years. In our view, a U.S. President who failed to ask questions about Iraq and other state sponsors of terrorism in the wake of 9-11 would have been irresponsible.


There is a profound contradiction at the heart of this 20-20 hindsight. On the one hand, the critics want to blame the Bush Administration for failing to prevent 9-11, but on the other they assail it for acting "pre-emptively" on a needless war in Iraq. Well, which do they really believe? We'd guess it is the latter because when these same critics held the reins of government they failed to do much against al-Qaida beyond fire cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away. Their boast that after 9-11 they would have toppled the Taliban, as well as increased pressure on Saddam Hussein, is impossible to credit. Their criticism now, in books and especially through the 9-11 Commission, is a case of blaming the Bush Administration in order to absolve themselves of any and all responsibility.

If the 9-11 Commission members really wanted to make a public contribution, they would shut down and resume their probe after the elections. Their final report is now due on July 26, two months after its original deadline and the same day that the Democratic Party convention begins in Boston. We doubt that's a coincidence either.

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