Failures of the September 11 Commission

By William Raspberry

The Washington Post

Monday, July 26, 2004; Page A11

For all its somber-faced seriousness, the report of the Sept. 11 commission turns out to be a childlike explanation of what went so tragically wrong nearly three years ago.

It acknowledges the obvious, but it manages to avoid any semblance of individual responsibility. "The lamp broke," a child might say. Or, as the report would have it, the "system" failed.

Which surprises Ray McGovern not a whit.

"The whole name of the game is to exculpate anyone in the establishment," says McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the CIA and a member of a group of former agents called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. " 'Mistakes were made,' but no one is to blame. Why is it that after all this evidence and months and months of testimony, the commission found itself unable even to say if the attacks could have been prevented?"

McGovern has no doubt they could have been. He cites the FBI report of "all those Arab fellows training on aircraft but with no interest in learning how to land them." The report was rejected, unread, he says, by an FBI official, Spike Owen, who nonetheless "received a $20,000 cash award from the administration for his duties in safeguarding the American people."

McGovern cites as well the President's Daily Brief titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US" as evidence that President Bush and his top advisers had information on which they might have acted to prevent the attacks. Instead, he said in an interview Thursday, "the president went off to chop wood in Texas."

The combination of neglecting credible information and acting precipitously on highly questionable intelligence is something he'd not previously encountered in his government service, says McGovern, whose wife's cousin died in one of the World Trade Center towers. He is speaking out now "simply to spread a little truth around," he says.

And the truth as he sees it is that the commission has made two errors in judgment -- first, the refusal to place responsibility for intelligence shortcomings on particular individuals and, second, the attempt to repair the damage by proposing creation of a super spy chief, perhaps with Cabinet rank.

Both errors stem from the same impulse to politicize things that ought to be outside politics, according to McGovern, who has a chapter in a forthcoming book from the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation: "Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America's Promise at Home and Abroad."

Take the legal memorandum prepared by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales saying, in effect, that the president wasn't bound by the Geneva Convention in his treatment of certain war prisoners.

"Not a lawyer in the country believes that opinion holds water," McGovern said. "It was essentially a political document, one that told the president what he wanted to hear."

Much the same thing happened with the intelligence services, which strained to give the president what he clearly wanted to hear -- only to watch the administration stretch that already strained intelligence into a pretext for war.

Putting the top intelligence officer in the Cabinet would only exacerbate that problem, says McGovern. "Being in the Cabinet automatically politicizes the post. The director of central intelligence need not be above the battle, but he should certainly be apart from it."

The failure to remain apart from the battle may be the chief failing of the Sept. 11 commission, McGovern believes. "This commission is not representative of America or of the families of those who died in 9/11. It is an archetypically establishment body, consisting of people who, with the exception of a token white woman, look exactly like me. They are all lawyers or politicians, or both -- and all acceptable to Vice President Cheney, who didn't want a commission in the first place. The result is facile, mischievous and disingenuous. The families deserve better."

willrasp@washpost.com