- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

Been following the September 11 Commission? Me neither. But every so often I zap the remote and every third channel seems to carry Bob Kerrey or Richard Ben Veniste badgering some federal, state or local official about his or her agency’s preparedness for the events of September 11.

Well, the other week the showboating hacks of the Ben Veniste Anti-Social Club stopped preening themselves on Wolf and Larry and the other cable yakfests long enough to issue a September 11 interim report. And for me it raises serious questions about whether America’s commissions are ready for the challenges of this new war on terror.

I’m tempted to call on the president to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to lead a thorough investigation into blue-ribbon commissions. Perhaps he need to consider appointing a Cabinet-level secretary of the Department of Commissions to coordinate commission strategy.

The big news out of the report was, as The Washington Post headline had it, “Al Qaeda-Hussein link is dismissed.” As it happens, the report didn’t “dismiss” anything, but you can’t blame the media for rushing out special commemorative editions and sending out 11-year old newsboys to shout, “Uxtry, uxtry, new Bush lie. Vote Kerry.”

The actual report put it this way:

“We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”

That means what it says: As intelligence types always say, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. And, insofar as there was a lack of evidence, it was only for specific links between Saddam and specific attacks against the U.S.

But what nobody except Michael Moore and the rest of the conspirazoids would dispute is that there is a significant accumulation of circumstantial links between al Qaeda and Iraq — including meetings between Osama himself and Iraqi officials, the presence of al Qaeda operatives at Iraqi Embassy functions, the presence of al Qaeda associates within Iraq, etc. The Czechs stick to their story Mohamed Atta met with a bigshot Iraqi in Prague.

Meanwhile, the CIA is sticking to its story Atta was in America at the time of the alleged meeting — the basis being his U.S. cellphone was used that day. That, of course, is no proof of anything, except perhaps what’s wrong with U.S. intelligence. Oh, and also the inadequacy of U.S. immigration “records.”

But, by now the New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the gang were in full “Bush battered by devastating September 11 report” mode, even as the commission chairmen patiently tried to explain that, in fact, they largely see eye to eye with the battered presidential liar on this one. Well, they should have thought about that before they put their carelessly worded typescript on the photocopier.

A couple of days later, on June 21, commission member John Lehman went on “Meet The Press” and mentioned a lieutenant-colonel in Saddam’s Fedayeen who had significant ties to al Qaeda, including sitting in on a three-day meeting in Malaysia in January 2001 with several of the September 11 hijackers. This, said Mr. Lehman, is “new intelligence, and this has come since our staff report has been written.”

Really? I mentioned the lieutenant-colonel in question in a column in The Australian a month ago. I first heard of it months before that. And I’m just a third-rate pundit, not a big commission with gazillions of dollars and unlimited access.

The reality is this: There are connections between Saddam and al Qaeda. A mere 14 months after the liberation of Iraq, we don’t yet know enough to reach a definitive conclusion about those connections. The jury is still out, and so should the commission’s camera-hoggers have been.

These poseurs have blown it so badly they’ve become the definitive example of what they’re meant to be investigating: a culture so stuck in its way it’s unable to change even in the most extreme circumstances. Take this example from their report on September 11:

FAA Command Center: “Do we want to think about scrambling aircraft?”

FAA Headquarters: “God, I don’t know.”

FAA Command Center: “That’s a decision somebody’s going to have to make, probably in the next 10 minutes.”

FAA Headquarters: “You know, everybody just left the room.”

What’s going on there? Well, the guys at headquarters didn’t understand this was their rendezvous with history, and they were unable to rise to the occasion. Isn’t that just what the September 11 commission has done? It was appointed to take a cool, dispassionate look at the government’s response to an act of war, but it was unable to rise above the most pointless partisan point-scoring.

But I would go further. I would say the underlying assumption behind all the whiney point-scoring is false, and deeply dangerous. Most of what went wrong on September 11 we knew about in the first days after. Generally, it falls into two categories:

(a) Government agencies didn’t enforce their own rules (as in the terrorists’ laughably inadequate visa applications).

(b) Or the agencies’ rules were out of date — three out of those four planes reached their targets because their crews, passengers and ground staff all blindly followed the FAA’s 1970s hijack procedures until it was too late, as the terrorists knew they would.

The next time a terrorist gets through and pulls off an attack, it will be for the same reasons: There will be a bunch of new post-September 11 regulations, and some bureaucrat somewhere will have neglected to follow them, or some wily Islamist will have rendered them as obsolete as his predecessors made all those 30-year-old hijack rules. That’s the nature of government: 90 percent of agencies just aren’t very good and, if you put your life in their hands, more fool you.

Giving bureaucrats new acronyms and smarter shoulder insignia won’t make America more secure. What makes America more secure is going where the terrorists are, killing large numbers of them, and fixing — or at least neutralizing — the dysfunctional states in whose murky waters they breed.

Remember Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr, the Khomeini-wannabe with the 10,000-strong Mahdi Army? He threw in the towel last week. And, of that 10,000, the 1st Armored Division estimates it killed “at least several thousand.” You haven’t heard about that on the network news? Well, there’s a surprise.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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