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Sin Of Commission

How an anti-terrorism report got ignored.

Two weeks after George W. Bush's declaration of war against terrorism, a battle plan is taking shape. We are putting the screws to Pakistan to end its history of mentoring terrorists. We will now treat Afghanistan like the rogue state that it is. The Treasury Department will try to choke off Osama bin Laden's financing. Intelligence agencies, at long last, will share information with one another. And if the Bush administration has its way, the CIA will revert to its pre-1995 guidelines, which allowed operatives to recruit informants with sketchy human rights records.

All sensible moves. And they were just as sensible when the National Commission on Terrorism proposed them more than a year ago. Yet the NCT's proposals never made it into law, and the reasons why say a lot about how difficult it will be for George W. Bush to carry out his war on terrorism today. The commission, you see, wasn't merely undermined by civil liberties groups suspicious of a serious effort against terrorism. It was undone by the very government agencies tasked with carrying out that effort.

In Washington, blue-ribbon anti-terrorism commissions aren't exactly rare. But from the beginning, the NCT stood out. For starters, there was its mandate: It was commissioned by Congress, in the wake of the 1998 African embassy bombings, to produce the definitive blueprint for legislation overhauling counterterrorism policy. Then there was the panel's prestige. Chaired by Ronald Reagan's counterterrorism czar, L. Paul Bremer III, the commission included a retired head of the Army's Special Operations Command (Wayne Downing), a former undersecretary of defense (Fred Ikle), and a cast of foreign policy heavyweights. So unlike many other commissions whose reports get a paragraph on A-23, the NCT grabbed the attention of editorialists and Sunday talk show hosts. As former CIA director R. James Woolsey, another of the NCT panelists, puts it, "This was the best shot at change."

And the report lived up to its billing. Even its cover--which includes an image of the World Trade Center towers--was prescient. The panel found that the U.S. government wasn't prepared to prevent an Al Qaeda attack on American soil and that "the threat of attacks creating massive casualties is growing." In response, the NCT called for, among other things, expanded wiretap authority, recruitment of linguists, and the revision of laws that prevent the FBI and CIA from sharing intelligence--exactly what John Ashcroft is calling for now.

Civil liberties groups were predictably hostile. Within hours of the report's release, the aclu called it an "ominous cloud." The Arab American Institute's James Zogby said it harked back to the "darkest days of the McCarthy era." Leftist commentators accused the commission of hyping the danger of terrorism so that the FBI and CIA could justify greater surveillance powers and more money. Salon's Bruce Shapiro suggested that the NCT's warnings of domestic attack "are a con job, with roughly the veracity of the latest Robert Ludlum novel." Robert Dreyfuss wrote in Mother Jones that "for the national security establishment, adrift with few enemies since the end of the Cold War a decade ago, the terrorist threat seems made to order."

But the national security establishment objected to the commission's recommendations as well. Testifying before Congress in 1999, FBI director Louis Freeh tried to anticipate the report's complaints, noting that "the frequency of terrorist incidents in the United States has decreased in number" and implying that the bureau was already effectively combating the danger. The CIA was even more hostile. When the report appeared, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow rejected its call for the agency to jettison its "overly risk averse" approach to recruiting informants. Three members of the commission told me that the CIA leaked the report's more controversial recommendations in order to put the NCT on the defensive.

In part, the CIA opposed the recommendations out of fear that they would rekindle the agency's cold war reputation for dirty tricks. Under Bill Clinton, the CIA furiously tried to scrub away the tarnish of its Latin American misadventures during the 1980s, especially its alliance with Guatemalan paramilitary squads. And the NCT seemed to be pushing in the opposite direction, explicitly pleading with the CIA to find more "unsavory" terrorist sources. "Since John Deutch headed the agency," one ex-CIA official told me, "the seventh floor of Langley has become very politically correct. And they're so worried about provoking critics."

But mostly, the CIA opposed the NCT's recommendations for the same reason virtually every other government department and agency did: They trespassed on its turf. On CNN's Late Edition, Madeleine Albright countered the NCT's finding that the administration needed to get tougher with Pakistan and Greece. "We are pressing them [already]," she told Wolf Blitzer. And she warned that "in looking at how we fight terrorism, we have to remember what kind of a society we are"--implying that the commission wanted to trample civil liberties. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters that the NCT recommendations siphoned too much power away from the FBI. And the administration's civil rights chief, Bill Lan Lee, implied in a speech to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that Arab-Americans were being unfairly smeared. (Never mind that the report didn't once mention Arab-Americans.)

Still, for one brief moment, Congress looked like it might impose change. Using the NCT report as their template, in July 2000 Senators Jon Kyl and Dianne Feinstein attached the recommended reforms to an intelligence authorization bill. As one Senate staffer told me, "It could have been one of the most important overhauls of American intelligence in recent memory." But the Kyl-Feinstein legislation quickly ran aground thanks largely to one man: Vermont's Patrick Leahy. Warning of CIA mischief and "risks to important civil liberties we hold dear," Leahy threatened to hold up the entire intelligence authorization bill to sink the reforms; so Kyl and Feinstein untethered the proposals from the budgetary process. Then, in October, bin Laden blew a hole in the USS Cole and Kyl and Feinstein's effort gained new momentum. But this time, instead of trying to defeat the legislation outright, Leahy weakened it so much that it became essentially useless. By threatening to place a hold on the bill, he extracted countless concessions. And when the legislation finally cleared the Senate in November, it did nothing to loosen CIA recruitment guidelines or expand the FBI's wiretapping authority. "It was so watered down by the time we got the bill," says one House Republican aide, "it wasn't worth taking up." And so the legislation died.

Would the Kyl-Feinstein changes have prevented September 11? Who knows? But September 11 utterly confirmed the commission's assertion that the government agencies charged with fighting terrorism were doing a woefully inadequate job. Unfortunately, those agencies proved more skilled at protecting themselves from bureaucratic encroachment than at protecting the country from Al Qaeda. And they received critical help from civil libertarians who saw counterterrorism as merely a ruse for the expansion of government power. In Washington, denial was a river in Egypt. And barely anyone except the NCT believed that terrorists might be lurking on its banks.

Franklin Foer is an associate editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 8, 2001, issue of the magazine.