Rushing to Reform Intelligence

Last month, when the 9/11 commission was about to release its report advising an overhaul of US intelligence, conventional wisdom had it that the repair work would have to wait until 2005, when a new Congress, and perhaps a new administration, would be in place.

But commission members turned that so-called wisdom on its head. Citing urgency, they began lobbying immediately for change, and family members of the 9/11 victims urged voters to make the report a campaign issue.

Almost overnight, politicians were all over it. No one wanted to be seen as weak or shirking responsibility. Congress began hearings during its recess. With the ink barely dry on the report, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry endorsed it. This week President Bush backed some of its recommendations.

To a great extent, the nation has politics to thank for this intense attention. Who knew Washington could move so fast?

But as much as politics is working for this issue, it is also detracting from serious consideration of it.

Candidates Kerry and Bush are locked in a battle to prove who is tougher - and quicker - when it comes to fighting terrorism and fixing the country's intelligence apparatus.

Kerry may have a point that the president resisted creating the 9/11 commission. But in commenting this week that "we cannot afford reluctance in the protection of our country," he exaggerates by characterizing his opponent as a terrorism laggard, and sets the wrong campaign tone.

And Kerry may be correct in asserting he has long advocated many of the report's ideas. But by backing them in full, he acts as if there's nothing to question.

One legitimate point for debate is the recommendation that a national director of intelligence and a counterterrorism center be in the White House. That's too close to politics for an operation whose cachet is impartiality.

The White House, however, is also politicizing the issue. It sounded odd, in the middle of Sunday's announcement raising the terrorism threat level, to hear the secretary of homeland security recite Bush's antiterrorism record as if the secretary were stumping on the campaign trail.

And what about the president's recommendations? By endorsing a new national intelligence chief, but denying that person the budgetary and personnel authority to do the job properly, it looks as if the White House is more interested in a quick response than a considered one.

Washington can't let the 9/11 report gather dust. But it should move with all deliberate speed.

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