Within the next few weeks, a new independent commission will begin to examine the factors that contributed to the 9/11 attack.
When this commission was first proposed more than a year ago, I was skeptical of the idea. Along with many of my colleagues, I was concerned that such an investigation would needlessly distract our law-enforcement and intelligence officials for their ongoing efforts to protect the country from future terrorist attacks. I also felt a separate commission was unnecessary since a Joint Senate and House Intelligence Committee inquiry - in which I was a participant – was already underway.
That investigation has ended but, many questions remain unanswered. As a result, late last year I voted in favor of establishing an independent commission, in the hope that it would answer questions about the causes of the 9/11 attack that our joint committee failed to address.
As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have offered the independent commission’s chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, some recommendations that I hope he will find instructive as he plans his upcoming inquiry.
The report of our Joint Intelligence committees is a useful history of the events that led up to the September 11 attacks, but not the thorough assessment of how to prevent future intelligence failures that I and others had originally envisioned. The report offers worthwhile recommendations, such as the obvious need for more resources for intelligence gathering and greater communication between law-enforcement agencies. But it fails to address and propose solutions to the more fundamental failures leading up to the 9/11 attack and why our nation was caught so unprepared.
Among questions that the Kean Commission should thoroughly examine:
• Why were government agencies risk averse? Numerous officials testified that fear of countless congressional investigations, counterproductive guidelines from CIA headquarters on terrorist infiltration, and racial profiling concerns all contributed to a culture that discouraged aggressive counterterrorism activities. Yet the Intelligence Committee, while outlining the seriousness of this problem, failed to ask why agencies were averse to taking risk and what can be done to encourage them to be more proactive in the future.
• Were intelligence gathering activities chronically underfunded? Intelligence officials long have maintained that they lacked the necessary funds from Congress to carry out their duties. Yet the Intelligence Committee report concluded that, in fact, the intelligence community appeared to receive all of the funds it requested from the federal government in the 1990s. Which is accurate? What funding level is sufficient? The Intelligence Committee never grappled with these potentially crucial questions.
• Why was the State Department so lax in its visa issuance policies? As many as 15 of the 19 hijackers should have been denied entry into the United States under existing U.S. law and visa issuance procedures. Yet the State Department allowed all of them legal entry, despite obvious red flags and glaring omissions in most of the hijackers’ visa applications. This monumental failure deserves thorough examination by the commission because it answers the question as to whether the 9/11 attack could have been prevented with a very clear “yes.”
• Why did Congress fail to act on the recommendations of three terrorism commissions?
As chairman (and later ranking Republican) on the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, working with Senator Dianne Feinstein, I called representatives of all of three previous terrorism commissions before our subcommittee to offer their recommendations to combat what they all deemed was a growing terrorist threat against the United
Senator Feinstein and I tried on more than one occasion to incorporate many of their proposals into legislation to be acted on by Congress, but were met with consistent opposition from Senators who feared that even the slightest change in the law was a dire threat to civil liberties, others who were unwilling to allocate more resources to
counterterrorism, and some who simply did not find the threat of terrorism particularly urgent.
The overriding goal of the new Kean Commission should be to examine these serious questions not so much to assign blame as to provide insight so that we can avoid these problems in the future. While no country can be totally protected from any and every possible terrorist attack, it is clear we could have done a much better job prior to