- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

Four months have passed since the September 11 attacks, long enough for us to be able to start looking, soberly and intently, at why our intelligence and defense establishments didn't detect the threat and prevent the disasters. America needs to know how the events of September 11 came to pass and what needs to be done to prevent anything like them from happening again. Plans for congressional commissions and all sorts of other inquiries are being tossed around. But, before we get any further along, we need to be sure that the mechanism chosen and the people involved are aimed at an investigation, not an inquisition. In other words, the fault of individuals is one aspect of the investigation, but it is important, as well, that we probe what went wrong with our defenses.

Investigators can learn a lot from the commission that investigated the Pearl Harbor disaster, which is the only comparable event in our history subjected to this type of scrutiny. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, America wanted to know who was to blame. Obviously someone was: How else could the Japanese catch us unaware and destroy much of our Pacific Fleet so easily? Despite being led by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, the investigation made more than its share of mistakes. The Roberts Commission didn't take much of the testimony of senior military officers under oath. The commissioners weren't given access to the secret "Magic" reports, which were decoded Japanese diplomatic and military messages from both before and after the attack. Also, the investigation was done too quickly. Only seven weeks after the attack, the commission reported that the on-scene commanders, Rear Adm. Husband Kimmel and Maj. Gen. Walter Short, were guilty of dereliction of duty. Indeed, they were.

Congress and President Bush will soon have to sort out the proposals for how the events of September 11 will be investigated. One is for the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence to conduct a joint investigation, and there are proposals to set up panels of 10 to 12 members. The number of commissioners is less important than who they are and what they are tasked to do. The commission should be composed of experts in intelligence, law enforcement and the armed forces. The commission must not only be given access to all of the secret materials it desires, it should be briefed on and offered access to what we have. It should be given the power to subpoena people and records, include people who are not government employees, and it may need an adjunct panel of representatives of our overseas allies. The commission should be chartered to act in two stages: first, to investigate what happened and report the facts; second, to draft an agenda of changes needed to reduce, if not eliminate, our vulnerability to terrorism. Congress may not be able to resist convening its own investigation, but it probably should do so only after the experts make their report.

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