AUSTIN, Texas -- The congressional report by the committees on intelligence about 9-11 partially made public last week reminds me of the recent investigation into the crash of the Columbia shuttle -- months of effort to reconfirm the obvious.
In the case of the Columbia, we knew from the beginning a piece of insulation had come loose and struck the underside of one wing. So, after much study, it was determined the crash was caused by the piece of insulation that came loose and struck the underside of the wing.
Likewise in the case of 9-11, all the stuff that has been blindingly obvious for months is now blamed for the fiasco.
The joint inquiry focused on the intelligence services, concluding that the FBI especially had been asleep at the wheel. And that, in turn, can be blamed at least partly on the fact that the FBI, before 9-11, had only old green-screen computers with no Internet access. Agents wrote out their reports in longhand, in triplicate. Although the process is not complete, the agency is now upgrading its system: Many agents finally got email this year.
My particular bete noir in all this is the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), which distinguished itself by granting visas to 15 of the 19 hijackers, who never should have been given visas in the first place. Their applications were incomplete and incorrect. They were all young, single, unemployed males, with no apparent means of support -- the kind considered classic overstay candidates. Had the INS followed its own procedures, 15 of the 19 never would have been admitted.
The incompetence of the INS was underlined when it issued a visa to Mohammad Atta, the lead hijacker, six months after 9-11. In the wake of the attacks, the Bush administration promised to increase funding for the INS, to get the agency fully computerized with modern computers and generally up to speed. All that has happened since is that INS funding has been cut.
Much attention is being paid to the selective editing of the report, apparently to protect the Saudis. I think an equally important piece of the report is on the bureaucratic tangle that prevents anyone from being accountable for much of anything.
The CIA controls only 15 percent to 20 percent of the annual intelligence budget. The rest is handled by the Pentagon, despite widespread agreement that it needs to be centralized. The Bush administration has ignored these calls, mostly because Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld doesn't want to give up any power.
Time magazine reports, "It was striking that the Pentagon came under such heavy fire in last week's bipartisan report for resisting requests made by CIA director Tenet before 9-11, when the agency wanted to use satellites and other military hardware to spot and target terrorists in Afghanistan."
But the most striking thing about this report is that none of its conclusions and none of its recommendations have anything to do with the contents of the PATRIOT Act, which was supposedly our government's response to 9-11. All the could-haves, would-haves and should-haves in the report are so far afield from the PATRIOT Act it might as well be on another subject entirely.
Once again, as has often happened in our history, under the pressure of threat and fear, we have harmed our own liberties without any benefit for our safety. Insufficient powers of law enforcement or surveillance are nowhere mentioned in the joint inquiry report as a problem before 9-11. Yet Attorney General John Ashcroft now proposes to expand surveillance powers even further with the PATRIOT II Act. All over the country, local governments have passed resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act and three states have done so, including the very Republican Alaska.
The House of Representatives last week voted to prohibit the use of "sneak and peek" warrants authorized by the PATRIOT Act. The conservative House also voted against a measure to withhold federal funds from state and local law-enforcement agencies that refuse to comply with federal inquirers on citizenship or immigration status. All kinds of Americans are now waking up to fact that the PATRIOT Act gives the government the right to put American citizens in prison indefinitely, without knowing the charges against them, without access to an attorney, without the right to their confront accusers, without trial. Indefinitely.
The report was completed late last year, but its publication was delayed by endless wrangles with the administration over what could be declassified. Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who served on the committee, said the report's release was deliberately delayed by the White House until after the war in Iraq was over because it undercuts the rationale for the war. The report confirms there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
"The administration sold the connection to scare the pants off the American people and justify the war," Cleland said. "What you've seen here is the manipulation of intelligence for political ends."