Even as the US wages war on terrorism, Congress plans to hold hearings on why the intelligence agencies failed to detect recent terrorist attacks like Sept. 11.
This delicate task of probing the agencies now conducting war is, using Plutarch's words, "like watermen, who look astern while they row the boat ahead."
Looking back for the purpose of self-correction can help serve the war. But looking back for the sake of scoring political points will serve no purpose.
Members of the joint Senate-House committee should live up to a statement by House Intelligence Committee chair Porter Goss (R) of Florida that the panel be "forward looking" without whitewashing the intelligence community's fence at the same time.
Shedding light on past covert operations in order to improve new ones won't be easy. The bipartisan panel will look into what went wrong surrounding events such as the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1996 bombing of US military barracks in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, as well as Sept. 11.
Obtaining full cooperation from those used to keeping secrets by those who have a reputation of being not so good at keeping them won't be easy. A former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, L. Britt Snider, will oversee the committee's staff of investigators. His work will be carefully watched by panel members. If it falters, Congress should consider setting up an independent board of inquiry, such as those established to delve into other major national tragedies - Pearl Harbor, the Challenger space-shuttle disaster, and the Kennedy assassination.
Still, there are some dos and don'ts the committee should follow:
Without naming names and pointing fingers, members should look into the role that old-fashioned spying - infiltrating enemy groups - might have played to prevent Sept. 11 and other terrorist attacks. Human intelligence, or "humint" as it's called, has been downplayed over the years, in favor on high-tech wizardry.
The panel also must examine whether so much money being spent on intelligence-gathering (some $30 billion a year) really is directed at operations like the Sept. 11 attacks, which cost an estimated $150,000.
The panel should explore how agencies like the CIA could go so long without adequate foreign language ability and cultural diversity, weaknesses that probably had a negative effect on detecting planned attacks.
The panel should also look at the roles played by the White House (both Clinton and Bush), the Justice Department, and Congress itself in coordinating or influencing the intelligence agencies. A closer look at creating greater cooperation between the domestic-focused FBI and the international CIA must be conducted.
The intelligence agencies have largely adjusted to a post-cold-war world in which radical groups like Al Qaeda use suicide attacks and rogue nations hide weapons of mass destruction. But the American people now deserve to know what more can be done to prevent future attacks.