Independent Inquiry Essential

James M. Lindsay and James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

June 25, 2002

The congressional investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks moved into high gear last week with closed-door testimony by Central Intelligence Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Although the hearings by the joint intelligence committee mark the proper exercise of Congress’ oversight responsibilities, they are not enough. If we as a nation are to meet the urgent intelligence challenges of homeland security and counterterrorism, it essential that Congress and the president go further and appoint an independent, bipartisan commission to examine why the terrorist attacks succeeded.

The White House insists that a congressional inquiry alone can do the job. But the early signs are not encouraging. Lawmakers are divided about the inquiry’s procedures. The committee is already on its second staff director. The hastily assembled 30-person staff is drowning in a sea of documents and facing a tight deadline.

Even if the congressional inquiry were proceeding smoothly, an independent commission would still make sense. One reason is that Congress itself is under scrutiny. Rightly or wrongly, its ability to evaluate objectively its own shortcomings is open to question. As a relative of a Sept. 11 victim put it, “If I asked my son to write a paper, I would not ask him to grade it.”

No matter how conscientious Congress’ work may be, only an independent commission can give the country, and the victims’ families, confidence that the investigation has been thorough and fair.

At the same time, the recommendations the joint congressional committee makes inevitably will be seen through a political lens, and potentially weakened as a result. If, for example, the committee recommends against moving parts of the CIA or FBI into the proposed Homeland Security Department, it will be vulnerable to charges that it is protecting its turf. An independent commission’s view can help dispel that perception of self-dealing, or, if warranted, give an alternative perspective.

Most important, the scope of the joint committee’s inquiry is too narrow. It is concentrating on who knew what and when about Sept. 11. That is a critical question. But if we are to take on the challenge that terrorism poses to us in the 21st century, our focus must be broader.

We need answers to key questions such as: Does the CIA director have the authority to coordinate all the key intelligence assets at our disposal in the fight against terrorism, including those in the military and foreign service? Do we have an adequate understanding of the nature of the threat and what intelligence tools we need to counter it? Are we effectively tapping the expertise and the innovation of the private sector in using information technology?

An independent panel of distinguished and dispassionate experts is best-positioned to help Congress and the executive branch answer these questions. It could draw on the expertise of the public and private sector. It would have no turf to protect, so it could ask tough questions about roles and missions. And it would not be trapped in the past, trying to protect business as usual.

Opponents of an independent commission will argue that similar efforts in the past—from the commission that examined the causes of Pearl Harbor to the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—were found wanting. More recently, several independent commissions examined the intelligence community and counterterrorism, including the 1996 Aspin-Brown Commission, the 2000 Hart-Rudman Commission and the Gilmore Commission. Little came of their efforts.

This is not an argument against an independent commission, however. Hart-Rudman and others failed not because their analyses were weak, but because policymakers weren’t listening.

Now official Washington is all ears. President Bush has proposed the most dramatic reorganization of the national security establishment since the creation of the CIA, the Defense Department and the National Security Council in 1947. Congress appropriated $10 billion for homeland security immediately after the attacks and will appropriate even more this year.

A national commission on the role of intelligence in homeland security and counterterrorism could help assure the American public that the lessons we learn from the attacks of Sept. 11 would be translated into actions that would effectively meet the challenges of the future, not simply fight the last war. The victims of the tragic attacks and the country deserve no less.