Americans were well served by public inquiries of Bush and Clinton administration officials this week about their anti-terrorist actions before Sept. 11. This airing of decisions made - or not made - should help the nation make further adjustments to counter the danger that terrorism still poses.
The final report of the 10-member bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States isn't due until late July, but already its initial work has shown a need to refine the campaign against Al Qaeda and its related groups.
Assigning blame for pre-9/11 decisions may provide some solace to the families of victims. And finger-pointing with the hindsight of the attacks may serve a useful political purpose during an election year. Many voters could be swayed by the commission on whether Democrats or Republicans are better at counterterrorism. Both parties now have multiyear track records in that effort.
But the commission's primary role should be to present lessons still to be learned rather than simply to point out lapses of judgment. And its report could be useful to force both President Bush and John Kerry to be more specific on how they would fight terrorism over the next four years.
What was made clear during the two days of hearings was how much both administrations took their cue for action from the public mood - reflected in Congress - toward the threat of terrorism. Americans need to realize how much their estimates of the threat, and their willingness to take risks and devote resources, influence government in this campaign.
The former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, told the panel that persuading Congress and various agencies to take action was much easier after 9/11. "You know, unfortunately, this country takes body bags and requires body bags sometimes to make really tough decisions about money and about governmental arrangements."
He asked the panel to recommend "a change in the attitude of government about threats, that we be able to act on threats that we foresee, even if acting requires boldness and requires money and requires changing the way we do business; that we act on threats in the future before they happen.
"The problem is that when you make that recommendation before [events] happen, when you recommend an air defense system for Washington before there has been a 9/11, people tend to think you're nuts. And I got a lot of that."
A similar theme was heard from President Clinton's Defense secretary, William Cohen, who asked the panel to "find the fault lines as well in our society as a whole."
He cited the frustration of gaining the cooperation of Congress in taking actions against Al Qaeda, especially when many Americans cynically suspected a "Wag the Dog" motive by Clinton. "Do you think it's reasonable that under the circumstances that any president, including President Clinton, could have gone to Congress in October of 2000 and said, 'These people are trying to kill us, and now therefore we're going to invade Afghanistan and take them out'? I don't think so."
Even getting money to fight terrorism in Indonesia and Pakistan, or for ridding Russia of nuclear material, was difficult.
"I believe that we have been complacent as a society," Mr. Cohen said. "We all must stand accountable for our actions.
"I think that we have failed to fully comprehend the gathering storm. Even now, after September 11th, I think it's far from clear that our society truly understands the gravity of [the] threat that we face or is yet willing to do what I believe is going to be necessary to counter it.
"I remain concerned that the controversy over not finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will lead to the erroneous assumption that all this talk about the dangers of WMD is just another exercise in the cynical exploitation of fear."
A sense of security because the US has not been attacked since 9/11 is a "dangerous delusion," he added. Cohen suggests an in-depth public discussion among citizens on the compromises on privacy that may be needed to remain free and safe and to elevate public discussion on terrorism above the politics of cynicism.
"Every one of us is on the front lines today."
That's a fitting conclusion for the commission's work.