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Shed Light on a Dark Day

September 26, 2002

The United States did it after Pearl Harbor and John F. Kennedy's assassination. The Senate voted Tuesday night to establish an independent commission to investigate 9/11, putting the nation on track to witness another solemn inquiry into whether a national catastrophe could have been averted. History does not provide many successful models, but the government is right to try, with a panel independent of both the White House and Congress.

Congress has its own investigation and has issued three preliminary reports that are alarming enough: They point to a lack of cooperation between the FBI and CIA and to FBI lawyers who refused pleas last year by a New York agent to hunt down a man who became one of the hijackers.

But Congress has an obvious conflict of interest because it oversees intelligence agencies. Its investigators also are hampered by a lack of funds, staff and time. With an insufficient number of investigators and a deadline of early next year--and facing resistance from FBI and CIA officials who want to run out the clock--Congress can't finish the job.

The Senate proposal needs to be reconciled with a more limited House version passed in July. Under the Senate legislation, the 10-member panel of prominent national figures who are not currently serving in government would be armed with a $3-million budget and the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. The measure calls for the panel to include members with backgrounds in areas such as intelligence, homeland security and the military.

Among the logical candidates would be former CIA Director Robert Gates and former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Unlike the congressional investigative committee, it would have a mandate that would extend to diplomacy, law enforcement and immigration and aviation policy. How was it, for example, that all 19 hijackers came to the U.S. on legal visas?

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who championed the legislation, has said the commission would not be used to "point fingers" and even political scores. We hope he's right. The panel probing Pearl Harbor made scapegoats of Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Gen. Walter C. Short for intelligence and military failures that deserved wider blame.

That does not mean individuals should be exempt from scrutiny. The 9/11 commission should take a close look at CIA Director George Tenet's leadership of the agency. After Tenet's warning in 1998 that "we are at war" after the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, did the agency fail Tenet--or did Tenet fail the agency? Does the CIA director need more power over other government agencies to truly direct intelligence?

No commission will ever banish conspiracy theories--look at the Web sites dedicated to arguing over who really killed JFK. The panel would have to beware the 20-20 hindsight that gives too much weight to vague warnings that only look on-target in retrospect.

But the victims' families, who lobbied mightily for the panel, are right to insist on a full accounting, and President Bush was right to finally drop his opposition. Knowing what happened is necessary to fixing what's wrong.

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