It’s hard to read the 9/11 commission’s final report without reliving the events of that day. The report spares few details in recounting four crashed jetliners, the chaos that prevailed and a mountain of missed opportunities. We hope that story’sretelling reminds U.S. citizens of the continuing terrorist threat and the need to strengthen our ability to prevent the next attack.
The 9/11 panel has now called for the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s intelligence services since the creation of the CIA nearly 50 years ago. Congress and President George W. Bush must heed this call, election year or not.
The centerpiece of the commission’s plan is the creation of a cabinet-level position to coordinate all national intelligence functions. That person would control the budgets and the personnel for intelligence work that now involves 15 separate agencies.
The move would help correct some of the most glaring weaknesses in our intelligence gathering capabilities. Nearly three years after 9/11, the intelligence community remains patchwork in nature, with operations spread across multiple agencies and poor to nonexistent communication between agencies. The CIA is nominally responsible for intelligence on terrorist threats, but the vast majority of roughly $40 billion spent annually on intelligence goes to agencies beyond the CIA’s control.
The new cabinet position would also bring a measure of accountability. Following the trail of missed opportunities in the months and years before 9/11 has been maddening, because no one person presided over the intelligence community.
Already, several congressional committees have pledged to hold hearings on the commission’s proposal during the August recess. Not to be left out, Bush has promised a White House task force to immediately examine the plan. Those are encouraging signs, but little will be accomplished without a bipartisan commitment to intelligence reform.
There is widespread agreement that a future terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 is not a question of if, but when. A director of national intelligence would give us a fighting chance to know where and when that attack will come.