[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com]
Lightning paced thriller writer
of International Intrigue
National Bestselling Author

Is the 9/11 Commission a Mistake?
by Allan Topol, [IMAGE]2004


Photo Courtesy: Julie Zitin
[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com] With enormous hoopla, the 9/11 Commission has been doing its work. Its public hearings have made great television viewing as testifying former officials plugged their books and embraced families of victims with pronouncements of "your government failed you."

All of this has a surreal quality because the United States is currently at war with Islamic extremists, who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks have to be viewed as the opening salvo in the United States in that war. Hopefully, our intelligence will be good enough that no others will succeed, but how likely is that? In this situation, vetting in public the deficiencies of our intelligence apparatus assists terrorists in preparing their plans for the next attack.

To be sure, it was important to analyze what went wrong and whether there are deficiencies in our intelligence apparatus which must be rectified. However, that was done by the congressional intelligence committees, who used executive sessions where appropriate and reported jointly on their investigation of the September 11 attacks. The members of those committees, from both political parties, were fulfilling their mandate from the American people who elected them.

Following Pearl Harbor, executive commissions and congressional investigators examined what had occurred. While the war raged, the deficiencies were not aired in the press. There was recognition that it would impede the war effort. Later, when the war ended, the findings were released.

Here there are further adverse consequences. Publicly, intelligence analysts are being excoriated for failing to appreciate the significance of the reports they were receiving. "Failing to connect the dots," as commentators have charged, which would have shown what the perpetrators of these attacks were planning. Some want to radically restructure America's intelligence effort without any basis for asserting that a strengthened or weakened CIA will perform better.

Others have charged that the intelligence community did its job, but the policymakers failed to act on what they were given. And the search for someone inside the Beltway to blame for the September 11 attacks goes on and on, becoming increasingly vitriolic.

The debate both inside the 9/11 Commission and outside has also turned increasingly partisan and political. Some hope that at last they've found a way to nail President Bush and defeat his reelection. Others see a chance to blame the Democrats for eight years of lax safeguards. Don't blame Bush, they assert. Blame Clinton.

The time has come to recognize that intelligence can be good. It can never be perfect. But hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

One of the adverse side effects of the 9/11 Commission is that it is leading people to believe that if we close up the deficiencies we will be able to achieve a zero tolerance, i.e., block every attack. The United States is a difficult country to defend with long and porous borders. We won't be able to stop all terrorist attacks any more than we'll be able to stop all deaths from drunk drivers.

What we are doing is putting our intelligence analysts in an impossible position. Doomed to fail, many of the most conscientious will seek another line of work. This comes at a time when we must attract and retain the best possible people because ultimately, intelligence work is dependent not on technology, but the minds of the analysts.

The problem is particularly acute in this situation. At the same time our intelligence analysts are being criticized for not being aggressive enough in assessing information that pointed to the September 11 attacks, they are being chided for being too aggressive in connecting the dots about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

There, as before September 11, they had strong circumstantial evidence, which is usually the most that intelligence analysts ever have. That information, and all of Saddam's behavior prior to the war, pointed to the existence of these weapons. Still shell-shocked from September 11, it is understandable that the intelligence professionals erred on the side of the cautious in assessing Saddam's weapons program.

The successful operation of intelligence requires frank, confidential communications between analysts and policymakers. If every document is to be made public in the short term, a "c.y.a." philosophy will dominate.

By definition, intelligence work functions in secrecy. The 9/11 Commission threatens to put the entire apparatus in a fishbowl. It would be tragic if our intelligence agencies are weakened and less able to do their jobs because of the 9/11 Commission.