SALT LAKE CITY — The 9/11 commissioners have been taking a good long look over their shoulders at whether the Clinton administration for eight years, and the Bush administration for eight months, were derelict in their attentions to the terrorist threat before Sept. 11, 2001, and whether that tragedy could have been preempted.
It is an impressive and knowledgeable panel that appears to have been diligent in its private investigations, capped by two days of gripping public testimony last week by the nation's foreign policy cognoscenti.
Now comes the more critical part of the commission's work, as the clock ticks toward July 26, when it must deliver a report that not only chronicles any past deficiencies but offers recommendations that would prevent a recurrence. The interim reports of the commission suggest that there were missteps, miscalculations, and miscommunications under both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
As far back as 1996, the Clinton administration began to focus on Osama bin Laden, but plans to eliminate him were postponed or discarded for operational and political reasons. For similar reasons, reprisal raids were not carried out after terrorist attacks on US installations. A disabling lack of coordination between intelligence and security agencies such as the FBI and CIA continued into the Bush administration, so much so that top security officials were unaware of the presence of the terrorist hijackers in the US before the 9/11 attacks.
The Bush administration record is under particular attack by Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism chief. In testimony before the commission, he argued that an administration "must act on threats before they happen," and be prepared to move "on a low threshold of evidence, feel free to attack terrorist groups, feel free to use covert military action against those that threaten the US."
Mr. Clarke is angrily impatient with what he perceives as bureaucratic bungling, military caution, and presidential reticence in both administrations. Ironically, he deplores President Bush's operation in Iraq, although most of the public criticism against Mr. Bush is for taking the very preemptive action against Saddam Hussein that Clarke recommended against Osama bin Laden. The intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on which Bush acted clearly turned out to be false, even though the UN and many of its member countries also believed it. But one thing Bush can hardly be faulted for in Iraq is acting on a potential threat he believed to be real before it happened, or with a "low threshold of evidence."
If the 9/11 commission finds that the response to Al Qaeda's threat may have been lacking in timeliness or forcefulness, it would confirm similar earlier conclusions. In 1999, a commission on national security, cochaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, warned that "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland." States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups, it predicted, "will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." The commission specifically warned against "nontraditional attacks."
The warning gained little publicity and little government heed. But it went on to produce, in February 2001, a "road map" for imperative change in national security that made sweeping recommendations for meeting the looming threat. Some, like creation of a Homeland Security Agency, were implemented. Others, involving restructuring of, and new resources for, such agencies as the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council, and intelligence agencies, have not.
After 9/11, Rudman and Hart cochaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force that produced an updating report ominously titled: "America - Still Unprepared, Still in Danger." In an interview last year, Rudman told me that while there had been some improvements since 9/11, the US remained "dangerously ill prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil."
It will be tempting for politicians in a presidential election year to use the report of the 9/11 commission to berate each other's deficiencies. The commission should certainly not disregard past failures in America's national-security system. But its greatest service would be to infuse with new urgency recommendations for reform and improvement of that system. What Americans need from their leaders is focus on what must now be done, rather than preoccupation with what was done.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.