The Nov. 2 election has crystallized into a referendum on ways to prevent another 9/11-type terrorist attack. Not only do George Bush and John Kerry offer opposing approaches, but the election has put a spotlight on efforts in Congress to pass legislation restructuring the US intelligence system before next Tuesday.
That spotlight was created by the bipartisan 9/11 commission when it issued its report last July after more than two years of work. It insisted Congress move quickly to implement the panel's dozens of recommendations.
The most important recommendation was to create a powerful national director of intelligence who would be expected to prevent the type of bureaucratic blocks that failed to detect the Al Qaeda plot.
The panel's former politicians hoped the finger-pointing pressures of an election would push Congress not only to act in the same bipartisan way they did but also to accept the suggested reforms intact.
It appears the panel miscalculated.
If anything, Capitol Hill's partisan fault lines, which reflect differences among Americans on antiterrorism efforts, helped prevent the House and Senate from reaching a compromise on their competing bills.
In addition, both bills fail to reform congressional oversight of the intelligence community, a needed step to prevent bureaucratic competition from impeding communication about terrorists. Fixing a portion of Washington without this seems folly.
The House bill tends toward the Pentagon's view that the military shouldn't give up budget authority over its large share of the nation's intelligence work. That view places a strong emphasis on a military approach against terrorism.
The Senate bill, by adopting the panel's advice for a budget-wielding intelligence "czar," puts a focus on nonmilitary spy work. That bill resulted from genuine bipartisan effort, with 92 senators voting for it. Even though it's not perfect, the provision for a strong intelligence director with budgetary and personnel control over the entire intelligence apparatus is needed in order to further reform and coordinate that work.
The House bill, meanwhile, includes a few measures that would beef up security against illegal immigration along porous portions of the nation's border. Even though the 9/11 panel didn't recommend those measures, most of them are worth including.
As for passing a bill, all is not lost. A lame-duck session of Congress next month, or a new Congress acting early next year, could be more reflective about the best course on intelligence reform. The preelection, rush-rush approach was artificial, and only played into campaign politics.
Post-Nov. 2, the real deliberations can begin.