- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

It can be messy and splashy and ugly, a democratic system. Not to mention partisan, confusing, unseemly and about as dignified as one of your less graceful cat fights. But, lest we forget, this is the way the system is supposed to work. The duty of the opposition is to oppose to ask questions, sometimes leading ones, and to probe, looking for mistakes, or worse.

For a few days last week, the opposition was opposing with renewed vigor, even relish. I think the phrase is unholy glee. The occasion was the news that the president had been told, in a briefing Aug. 6, a month before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, that Osama bin Laden's terror network might be planning to hijack airplanes within the United States. Bingo, gotcha and pay dirt.

Or dirt, anyway. The opposition felt no need to go into detail about what the president wasn't told. For the intelligence community hadn't yet pieced together the puzzle and realized that the terrorists were planning to use the skyjacked plans as missiles against national landmarks.

Now the demand and in some quarters the clamor is for an investigation of what this president knew about September 11 and when did he know it.

The relevant question is why the FBI and CIA didn't latch onto two pieces information from the myriad data coming across their screens and put them together: One, a report from an FBI agent in Phoenix warning that Osama bin Laden could be using American flight schools to train his terrorists. Two, the CIA's identifying two names in the FBI agent's memo as linked to al Qaeda.

The quality of a nation's intelligence operation isn't just a matter of having the raw information, but of coordinating it, and even using some imagination. That may be why spy craft isn't only a science but an art. Only in hindsight is it easy to see the connections after the attack has occurred.

But some Democratic partisans weren't about to let the facts (and perspective) spoil a good scandal. One of them was Hillary Clinton, which figures. She's been so good all these months, trying to fit in as just another humble freshman senator learning the ropes and looking out for her constituents .

But when the news broke about the president's briefing back in August, Miss Hillary could no longer contain her old self. She pounced, and her unlikely vehicle was a headline in the New York Post. She may never have had much use for the Post, or it for her, but it was a case of any paper in a storm. She went to the Senate floor flourishing the Post's headline: "Bush knew." At last Hillary Clinton was back in character, playing a role that would surprise no one who has followed her career and costume changes.

But her tabloid politics didn't work. Why? Maybe because this president is no patsy, though he seems to like giving opponents that impression so they'll underestimate him. Or maybe because the whole story would soon deflate the suspicions being promoted by his critics. Or maybe because there's still a war on, and all the bumper stickers haven't entirely worn off yet: United We Stand.

Part of the whole story is that, as early as 1996, the FBI knew that bin Laden was interested in smashing planes into Washington landmarks, and by 1999 the White House was so informed.(So does that mean "Clinton knew"?)

For whatever reason, Miss Hillary started backpedaling almost as soon as the public reaction to her speech became evident. She wasn't making any accusations, she explained, none at all. She was just asking a few innocent questions. All she knows is what she reads in the papers, namely "Bush knew."

All of which doesn't mean an investigation is unwarranted. What did our intelligence agencies know and why didn't they realize what it meant?

But who is going to investigate the investigators? If the inquiry is left to the partisan likes of Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle or Hillary Clinton, it won't be easy separating the partisan chaff from the useful wheat.

Those most zealous for such an investigation may be least qualified to lead it, blinded as they are by their own prejudices. (An investigation may say most about those doing the investigating.)

Which is why some are talking about an independent investigation by a blue-ribbon commission, or maybe the House and Senate intelligence committees, or by somebody who doesn't rely on the tabloids for the questions and the answers.

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