War tools - information and preparation

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

The calls for a commission to investigate obvious problems in the gathering and disseminating of intelligence regarding terrorist plans prior to Sept. 11 are sparking partisan grandstanding.

But, as Washington Post columnist George Will suggests elsewhere on this page, a blue-ribbon commission might serve honorable purposes for both sides. The case Will makes deserves serious consideration.

So far, the political clamoring has suggested some outlandish scenarios that patently did not occur. No one believes the president nor anyone in his administration purposely ignored clear warnings in order to obtain some advantage, political or otherwise. At the same time, it is all too painfully clear in hindsight that various U.S. intelligence-gathering organizations badly fumbled the bits and pieces of information they had.

It is this last point that should be the central focus of a serious look at what was done -- or left undone -- in the weeks and days before three jets were taken over by hijackers intent on death and destruction.

As a companion to such an investigation, the Bush administration could take another step in the war on terrorism to upgrade domestic preparedness for what lies ahead. Repeatedly, Americans have been told that the War on Terrorism will last a long time, perhaps forever. And we have been subjected again and again to alerts and warnings that are unspecific to the point of frustration.

So the battle of words has drawn a line between failure to provide adequate warnings on the one hand and warnings that simply scare us on the other.

The missing piece, it seems, is the lack of any opportunity for action on the part of the American people, who are willing to play whatever role is necessary to create a national environment in which terrorists find it difficult to carry out their sinister plots.

During World War II, civilians were mustered into paramilitary neighborhood organizations. They were trained to identify aircraft and to watch for enemy planes. They were trained to identify ships at sea and to watch for enemy submarines and warships. They were trained in first aid and how to get their neighbors to safety in the event of an enemy attack.

In other words, Americans at war expect to be vigilant, but they also expect to be vigilant participants.

The federal and state homeland-security organizations that have been devised since Sept. 11, along with emergency-preparedness offices and other relief organizations, should be asking for civilian volunteers to train for this War on Terrorism. As a result, there would be some sense of readiness when warnings and alerts are issued.

This is not just a war for the military or just for the CIA and the FBI. This is a war for all Americans. Let's make sure we're ready to do our part.

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