Saturday, July 31, 2004

Washington Post: Learning From 9/11

Dear friends:

Our President has indicated that he will enact some of the 9/11 commission's recommendations within a short time, and that he will carefully study the long and short term ramifications of the entire report.

John Kerry stated unequivocally during his speech in Boston, that he would enact all of the recommendations immediately if he were President, and will enforce all of the changes if elected.

Following are 8 critical reviews and perspectives on the recommendations. Clearly there is not unanimity within the intelligence community and Senate. Nor have we as a nation had time to consider the efficacies of the individual recommendations and the costs associated with their implementation.

I believe that this issue is the most salient of the considerations on the agenda for voters as we approach November. Without a secure homeland; jobs, the economy, taxes and immigration won't matter. Radical, fundamentalist, extremists are looking for their place within our society, just as cancer looks for a host environment within healthy body tissue. Once in, the steady and menacing process of destruction commences. Unless the cancer is placed in check, completely destroyed or cut from the body, the outcome is destined to be grim.

We need to understand the cancer targeting our homeland, and with a united voice launch an unforgettable defense. Our ability to accomplish that rests within our knowledge of the subject.

You will certainly not agree with all of the reviews that follow, they are sent to you for your information and consideration as you begin to formulate your own opinions on the subject.

Thank you for your support. Please share this information with your address books.

Susan Moses

Washingtonpost.comLearning From 9/11Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B01

Would a cabinet-level director for coordinating the nation's sprawling intelligence apparatus make America any safer?As the Senate began scrutiny last week of the 9/11 commission's central recommendation, Outlook sought answers from seven former guardians of national security: William S. Cohen, John Deutsch, Robert C. MacFarland, Phyllis Oakely, William E. Odom, and John J. Devine, Stansfield Turner. The Post's culture critic, Philip Kennicott, assesses the unusual novelistic style of the commission's official report.© 2004 The Washington Post Company----------------

--------------------- William S. Cohen-----------

William S. CohenSunday, August 1, 2004; Page B04

The purpose behind creating a national intelligence director (NID) to coordinate all of our intelligence agencies is to reduce or remove the structural "stovepipes" that impede the flow of vital intelligence within and between agencies. The 9/11 commission was right to give this need a high priority -- and it was also right to identify the need for agencies to put greater emphasis on sharing intelligence rather than shielding it.This does not mean, however, that the need to protect sources and methods of intelligence collection will be any less important. Establishing a "joint staff," like the one that currently exists in the Department of Defense, could help meet the twin needs of disseminating and protecting intelligence. Such a staff would also be valuable in planning counterterrorist activities involving multiple participants.Creating an effective joint staff will be no easy task. Traditions and old habits die hard. It took more than four decades for our military services to conclude that serving on the joint staff was a positive contribution to national security and not a career-ending assignment.One of my principal concerns about the commission's recommendations is making sure that the NID office, however it is structured, is prohibited from having any advocacy role on operational matters. This is essential if we want to reassure the public that intelligence, which from pressure or favoritism. Those charged with collecting, collating and distilling intelligence should not indulge in policy debates. Past examples should remind us of the danger and folly of allowing this.Here, Congress must be vigorous in the exercise of its oversight responsibilities. And as Congress examines deficiencies within the executive branch, it should give equal weight to the need to reform its own budgetary and oversight processes.In order to mitigate concerns over the politicization of the NID, I also suggest that the director have a fixed term, rather than be subject to the political fortunes of any given president. The measure of success for an intelligence chief should not rest on a personal bond with the president. The relationship between the two should always be cordial, but above all else, it should be professional.If we are serious about real reform, we have to contemplate both the intended and unintended consequences of any changes that are made. Arguably, for instance, creating the NID could add just one more layer of bureaucracy over existing processes. But virtually every reorganization of an institution aimed at improving efficiency and decision-making will eventually reveal weaknesses or produce dislocations that will, in turn, need to be reengineered.The need for thoughtful examination of the commission's recommendations should not be used as an excuse to delay action. The urgency of the commission's findings require us to make haste, but wisely. We cannot afford to temporize in dealing with the threat of terrorism. Whether the commission's recommendations are adopted in whole or in part, it is important that we recognize that old ways have to yield to new demands if we hope to win the long struggle against an implacable, ideological enemy.William S. Cohen, secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001, is chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group.© 2004

The Washington Post Company--------------------John Deutsch---------- John Deutsch Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B04

The Sept. 11 commission report presents a compelling case for greater centralization of U.S. intelligence activities, but its recommendations fall short of achieving that goal.Establishing a cabinet-level position -- a national intelligence director (NID) -- is no substitute for properly aligning authority with responsibility. And the commission, while calling for one person to manage national intelligence, does not insist on giving that person enough authority to carry out that responsibility.Under the commission's proposals, the director would lack authority over the budgets of most of the Defense Department's intelligence programs -- Joint Military Intelligence Program (JMIP) and Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) -- as well as the FBI's national security activities. What's more, it remains unclear to whom the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) or the chiefs of other intelligence agencies would report. Requiring the NID to function through three "double-hatted" deputies -- who would simultaneously be running their own agencies -- would sharply limit his executive authority. The national intelligence director could become no more relevant than the drug "czar."The 9/11 commission report cites an interesting, though imperfect, model for centralizing the intelligence community: the Department of Defense military command structure established in 1986. Authority was centralized in the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as opposed to the different services, making it easier to carry out joint military operations. In the Pentagon, both the unified military command and the supporting military services fall under the executive authority of the secretary of Defense. This is not true of the proposed intelligence community organization, whose member agencies would also be reporting to other Cabinet members. Moreover, the proposal for a civilian-led unified joint command for counterterrorism works better for counterterrorism than for managing intelligence regarding other security issues that may arise in the Taiwan Straits, in the Palestine-Israel conflict or on the Indian subcontinent.In searching for a more effective way to assure effective and responsible intelligence, the commission made observations about the need for stronger congressional oversight that are very pertinent. But if the subtext is to make the NID more responsive to Congress, this has a significant disadvantage -- especially if, as some members of Congress have suggested, the director serves for a fixed term. The president should have complete authority over intelligence (as he or she does for defense) and the NID would be responsible for carrying out the president's wishes.My own experience is that cabinet-level status does not make any difference to the role or influence of the director of central intelligence. Influence depends upon performance, and upon the reliance the president and the rest of the national security team places on him or her. The single most important criterion for success of a NID would be a close relationship with the president -- especially if the NID's authority is limited. The core question is how much executive authority the NID should have to accomplish the very demanding and needed functions set out by the commission.John Deutch, director of central intelligence from 1995 to 1996 and deputy secretary of defense from 1994 to 1995, is an Institute Professor at MIT.© 2004

The Washington Post Company------------------- Robert C. McFarlane------ Robert C. McFarlane Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B04

Over the past 30 years, through abuse, neglect and poor leadership, the CIA has slowly ground to a virtual halt. More broadly, the so-called intelligence "community" -- structurally dysfunctional and lacking effective oversight -- essentially failed in its analyses of the two salient threats of the late 20th century: the Soviet Union and radical Islam. The Sept. 11 commission's proposed overhaul would go far toward restoring its effectiveness.At present, the six peer agencies (CIA, DIA, NSA, INR, FBI and National Reconnaissance Office) are dominated by one -- the CIA. Since all intelligence is filtered through the CIA, this creates an inevitable bias in what is presented to the president and diminishes the prospect that sound, though differing, judgments will be heard. The goal of the commission's recommendations is to make the bureaucracy functional by removing it from the control of one of its members and relying on the new national intelligence director's staff to oversee the production of objective, integrated intelligence.I see no reason for concern that this restructuring could distance the president even further from dissenting intelligence voices. It would be far less threatening for a lone dissenter to approach the president's staff directly than to have to risk first going through a CIA filter to make his or her point.In addition, as it would be unfettered by agency loyalty and bias, the new staff could have a dramatic impact on what I call "inertial budgeting" -- the practice of funding systems and programs this year because we did it last year -- and instead could make it possible to focus resources on new priorities or to exploit new technologies in a more timely way.The military's unified command structure, which has proven so effective in bringing the four uniformed services into a cooperative working relationship, is a sound model for the new director's office. A superior NID staff could be created by careful recruiting of experienced professionals from within and outside government. And giving staff members separate career status would insulate them against special pleading from their former "parent" agency.Giving the new director a fixed term that overlaps administrations, as suggested by some in Congress, is the right way to go to avoid the post's becoming politicized. The challenge lies in selecting a nonpartisan, experienced individual, but there's a solid cohort of candidates to choose from, including such professionals as John Lehman, 9/11 commission member and former Navy secretary; Marine Gen. Jim Jones, NATO's top military commander; retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific; Jim Woolsey, former director of central intelligence; and former ambassador David Miller, to name a few.Do I think that this arrangement risks placing more power over intelligence gathering in the national intelligence director's hands than in the president's? No. Clearly, the director would receive tasking from -- and be accountable to -- the president.Robert C. McFarlane, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985, now chairs an energy development firm in Washington.© 2004

The Washington Post Company------------------Phyllis Oakely------- Phyllis Oakley Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B05

You can't talk about a national intelligence director, or intelligence czar, without understanding the structure beneath such a job or where the money for intelligence goes. In my experience in government, people pay attention only to people who control resources with real, not nominal, authority.Our national intelligence structure was set up to be competitive -- to encourage independent analysis from different agencies in hopes such competition produces better judgments about how to act on the intelligence we have. So, for example, the work of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) would compete with the CIA's or Defense Intelligence Agency's.Professionals from each agency would note differences in analysis and, by investigating and resolving them, come to a better understanding. When they are not worked out, differences must be highlighted and explained, all the way to the very top, and not papered over. With an intelligence czar and a unified intelligence center, the system would lose the competitiveness that's been an important element of its successes until now.Not everything about the present situation is bad. On the question of whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, INR did better than everyone else. It's just that no one listened. It seems to me that whatever structure is set up, the principle of competitive analysis, as well as a system in which people can argue and disagree, needs to be preserved. And those people need to be heard by the national security adviser or the president.The relationship between an intelligence czar and a president needs to be a personal one. Look at President Bill Clinton's first CIA director, James Woolsey. He never saw Clinton, which made it difficult for intelligence to inform policy.It may seem paradoxical, but the only thing we need as much as competitiveness among agencies is coordination, especially if we go along with the commission plan to maintain separate agencies. The 9/11 commission's report made it clear that coordination was strikingly lacking three years ago, and that was at the root of our intelligence failure. For example: Before Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA had information about some of the hijackers, but they weren't on the Immigration and Naturalization Service watch list for visas.Having a joint coordination center might have helped, but having an overarching czar wouldn't have solved that problem. If the national intelligence director is a member of the Cabinet and has all sorts of other responsibilities, he's not going to have time to run the center. Moreover, the real coordination isn't going to come from the top -- it has to be encouraged at a lower level, among analysts.All these things need to be thought about -- and urgently. But there ought to be real discussion about how any reconfigured intelligence structure would work. The thought that the president is just going to adopt all these things -- especially in an election year -- is just wacky. You have to look at the total intelligence structure before you can say yea or nay.Phyllis Oakley, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, spent a quarter century in the U.S. Foreign Service.© 2004

The Washington Post Company----------------William E. Odom------ William E. Odom Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B05

No organizational design will compensate for incompetent incumbents, but some designs prevent competent incumbents from performing well. The 9/11 commission's design for a new national intelligence director (NID) is sure to accomplish the latter. There is already a layer of bureaucracy above the CIA, NSA, DIA and other intelligence agencies, and it consists of the Community Management Staff and the National Intelligence Council. It simply has not been used effectively because the director of central intelligence is double-hatted -- that is, he is both CIA director and coordinator of the nation's intelligence agencies. Creating a NID with three deputies -- for homeland security, domestic intelligence and foreign intelligence -- would make things much worse. It would assure turf battles and prevent effective budget management.Several senators have endorsed a fixed term for the NID, saying this would prevent the post from being politicized. It's a bad idea. The FBI director's term is fixed, and more often than not, this arrangement has fostered bad relations between the FBI director and the president. It would create worse ones for a NID. There is no way to depoliticize the role of the president's intelligence chief. It is a desirable aspiration, but intelligence is just as political as policymaking and military operations.The popular notion that apolitical intelligence will prevent bad policies is an illusion. Intelligence chiefs can be no more effective than their political leaders or military commanders allow them to be or demand that they be. The intelligence failures surrounding the 9/11 attacks and in Iraq are primarily political failures. Effective leaders do not tolerate inadequate intelligence performance or leave it to commissions to fix intelligence problems.The following historical anecdote may be instructive:In late 1944, as the German Wehrmacht prepared to launch its last counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge, several pieces of intelligence suggested it was coming. The top American generals couldn't agree on the value of the intelligence. Montgomery and his obedient intelligence officer (known as his G-2) stubbornly rejected the facts; Bradley and his G-2 remained skeptical and passive. Eisenhower and his G-2 were somewhat quicker to sense the danger but slower than Patton, whose G-2 saw it coming several weeks beforehand, prompting Patton to get his divisions ready to meet the offensive.So four commanders with essentially the same intelligence turned in different performances. Though slightly disadvantaged by being at a lower echelon than all the others, Patton was far ahead of them in his appreciation of the impending assault.In writing up this case study, Harold Deutsch, a military historian in World War II, showed how the personalities of these commanders intimidated their G-2s, discouraging them from emphasizing unpleasant findings or pursuing other lines of analysis. In his words, "Whether the commanding general was on the correct or wrong track, therefore, the G-2 was likely to be right there with him. Perhaps the fine performance of Gustave Koch [Patton's G-2] was largely due to being lucky in his boss."When we ask how to improve the intelligence community's performance, we must recognize that it cannot be much better than the performance of the policymakers and commanders who own it.William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.© 2004

The Washington Post Company------------------------------- John J. Devine ------- John J. Devine A Heady Is Herey Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B05

The 9/11 commission served a very useful purpose in laying out the events and circumstances surrounding this horrific terrorist attack. Unfortunately and unintentionally, its recommendations regarding the intelligence community -- and specifically the CIA -- are potentially destructive.Because of the deep emotions about 9/11, the commission's findings are being treated as almost sacrosanct. Yet we should not allow ourselves to be stampeded into adopting these recommendations for short-term political expediency. We can't afford it. The security risks associated with dismantling the CIA are just too great, and this is the likely end result of the commission's principal recommendations.The creation of a national intelligence director (NID) and the removal of the counterterrorism mission from the CIA would leave the agency a demoralized shell. This would very likely not only lead to a major exodus of talented personnel, but to a failure to attract America's best and brightest, who are needed more than ever. This surely is not the commission's intent. The establishment of a national intelligence director and the national counterterrorism center (NCTC) would add a cumbersome bureaucracy without improving performance on the core issue -- the collection of very hard to obtain intelligence on the plans and intentions of terrorists. Without this information, all the restructuring in the world won't help. Nor would it add to the capacity to attack and destroy these groups before they attack us again. A counterterrorism center that reports to the new national intelligence director and is not under the CIA director's full control could only lead to confusion and internecine feuding. Moreover, separating operational planning and execution, as proposed in the report, would inevitably lead to unrealistic planning and lukewarm execution.There is no argument that the intelligence process should be consolidated and streamlined but this could and should be done within the existing CIA structure. Counterintuitive as it may seem in the aftermath of the commission and the Senate intelligence committee reports, the CIA needs to be strengthened. It needs a major infusion of resources and talent in order to get the job done. Just how under-resourced it has been is only now becoming clear, even to those of us who have worked in the intelligence business for most of our lives. Its overseas component alone should be several times larger than it is today. Surely, the problems that have recently been identified need to be corrected, but not this way. Why create a new position similar to the director of central intelligence (DCI)? It is redundant. Instead the DCI should be given the broad authority to direct the priorities and budgets of the other agencies in the intelligence community. Likewise, why create a NCTC when we are well along in the process of creating a multi-agency terrorism center called the Terrorist Threat Integration Center? The TTIC is the right road map for the future and should operate under the full control of the DCI.Embedded in the commission's recommendations are other very problematic suggestions, such as removing the CIA's paramilitary responsibility for covert action and transferring it to the Pentagon. This will not work. Let's ask ourselves whether the Soviets would have been driven out of Afghanistan or the Taliban toppled if we had to do this without the CIA's covert paramilitary capability. This transfer would greatly reduce the speed with which we can act and would surely lead to diplomatic, legal and political problems in the countries where we try to exercise this capability. No matter how you slice it, this activity is covert and if it is left to the Pentagon, the Defense Department would have to undergo the same Congressional oversight that the CIA does today. This is something that the Pentagon has not rushed to embrace in the past.The Sept. 11 commission also addresses the "need to share" and the "need to know" principles. While the emphasis, and rightfully so, is now on how to broaden the information sharing among all relevant government entities, we should not lose sight of the importance of protecting sources. Access to certain sensitive data must be limited to only those who need the data to get their jobs done. The cost of losing a communication system or a person who has penetrated a hard intelligence target can be incalculable in dollar, intelligence and human terms. Before broadening the information flow, we must weigh this risk.It is also worth remembering where the staff would come from to support the new national intelligence director. It would come from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, further reducing their workforces. In addition, whole new staffs would have to be created in all the agencies to respond to the NID and to provide the necessary tailored data. The amount of unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork and oversight should not be underestimated. After all, the NID would not produce any intelligence. His or her office would only be a consumer.The politicization of information threatens to corrupt policy choices and violates intelligence tradecraft. The CIA's value rests on the integrity of its reporting. Resisting all forms of politicization is central to effective analysis and collection. It is a question of the agency's culture, not its structure. Historically this resistance has engendered problems between the president and the DCI -- as it should. It is the job of the agency to provide the president with impartial intelligence so that he can make policy decisions for our country.John J. Devine, former CIA associate director of operations, spent 32 years with the agency. He served as both acting and associate director of operations from 1993 to 1995. Earlier, he headed the agency's counter-narcotics center and its Afghan task force during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.© 2004

The Washington Post Company------------- Stansfield Turner --------

From the Top . . .Stansfield Turner Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page B01

The 9/11 commission's recommendations don't create a new intelligence structure. Mostly, they repackage what we have now. For instance, the recommended position of national intelligence director (NDI) already exists. It is the director of Central Intelligence (DCI) created by the National Security Act of 1947, with responsibility for coordinating the nation's 15 intelligence agencies. The DCI today has a staff just for this coordinating function. We don't need a new layer of bureaucracy. What we do need is a review of what authority a coordinator of intelligence should have, whether we call him or her an NID or a DCI.The commission recommendation of separating the NID/DCI from the job of heading the CIA is a fine idea. The two jobs are more than one person should try to handle. And there is a conflict of interest in running one of the agencies that's being coordinated.A serious problem today, which the commission addresses nicely, is that the 1947 law did not give the DCI sufficient authority to ensure adequate exchange of data among the agencies. It would take only an executive order from the president to give the DCI, or a new NID, the authority to set the standards for classifying secret intelligence materials. Today, each of the heads of the 15 agencies can create classification categories so as to exclude other agencies from their data. Some intelligence does deserve special treatment. But that should be decided by the NID/DCI, who has the national interest in view, not someone with an agency's perspective.The same presidential executive order could give the NID the authority to set the budgets for all 15 agencies, to reallocate funds and people among them, and to set priorities for both collecting and analyzing intelligence, thus implementing the intent of the 1947 law. President Jimmy Carter gave me, as his DCI, that authority. This enabled a far greater degree of coordination than we have today.Should a new NID be given a fixed term -- not to coincide with the president's -- to help insulate him or her from political pressures to twist the intelligence? Absolutely not. Why? First, because one responsibility of the chief of intelligence is to be intelligence adviser to the president. A harmonious working relationship between the two is essential. In the past, a number of DCIs have resigned and a number of others have been fired just because of a lack of rapport with the president. Second, because the NID/DCI's authority derives in good measure from the support he or she receives from the president, especially vis-√†-vis the more powerful secretaries of defense and state. A close relationship with the president is a NID/DCI's lifeblood.Finally and most importantly, a fixed term is a bad idea because we shouldn't overreact to the accusation of the day -- that is, the assertion that the Bush administration may have pressured DCI George Tenet and his people to slant the intelligence on Iraq. The idea behind a fixed term is to make the NID more independent, rather than serving at the pleasure of the current president. Thirty years ago, we reacted in exactly the opposite direction, establishing congressional and executive controls to rein in powerful DCIs and prevent them from overstepping legal and ethical bounds, as they were accused of doing in the 1950s and 1960s.Let's not now reinvite this problem of the past in dealing with a problem of today. All that is needed is to select as NIDs people who will stand up to improper pressures. We also have two congressional committees on intelligence whose job it should be to blow whistles at the slightest sign that the intelligence process is being politicized.Stansfield Turner, director of central intelligence from 1977 to 1981, is on the faculty of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.© 2004

The Washington Post Company--A Novel

A Novel ApproachBy Philip KennicottSunday, August 1, 2004; Page B01

In March 1966, after the California Governor's Commission on the Los Angeles Riots released its report, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick wrote a short, despairing essay called "After Watts." She called the whole examination an empty exercise, a ritual of little purpose or consequence. "They investigate, they study, they interview, and at last, they recommend," she wrote. "Society is calmed, and not so much by what is found in the study as by the display of official energy."In writing yet another report, about yet another tragedy and yet more failures of governance, the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report have made a vigorous effort to leave the public anything but calm. And far from retiring after a palliative display of "official energy," the 10 bipartisan commissioners have expressed their determination to be heard beyond the Beltway and, if asked, to continue work past the scheduled date for their dissolution on Aug. 26. They have written a report that upends the usual expectations -- about language, rhetoric and purpose -- of blue-ribbon prose.The report's sentences are lean and simple, all the more so as the anonymous authors approach pivotal moments of decision, failure or tragedy. The tone is restrained. A carefully chosen adjective here or there gives color, but there is nothing baroque. The dominant tone is wise and sad, not angry. Rhetorically, the knowing shake of the head trumps the angry clench of the fist. If reviewers blurbed this book, the key word they'd use would be "unflinching."This writing style is essentially that of America's busy industry of personal confessional. It is the tone of the trauma memoirist, the daughter writing about Daddy's alcoholism, the husband about the car accident that killed his children and left him in a wheelchair, the survivor about incest or abuse hidden under a cloak of shame and secrecy. It is the ultra-spare, purposely unemotional -- yet quietly seething -- language of American pain. The style is a cliché now, at least among memoirists. But adapted for a government document, a 567-page litany of American political and security failure, it works with bracing power. The 9/11 Commission Report is a collective memoir, and the language of memoir has exorcised the cant from its pages."Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States," begins the report. "Millions of men and women readied themselves for work."With those words, the report's authors invoke collective memory -- who can't remember the azure depth of that perfectly clear sky three years ago? -- and put all of America ("millions of men and women") front and center in the drama. Official boards of inquiry love details, lots of dry details; but these details capture a mood, a sense of calm vulnerability. The 1912 Senate committee report on the sinking of the Titanic began by recording who owned the boat; the 1942 presidential commission report on the Pearl Harbor bombing opened with the dry particulars of the attack and then told its readers, "The Territory of Hawaii comprises the group of islands known as the Hawaiian Islands." The 9/11 Commission Report begins like an idyll, with perhaps the exact words that many of us, were we writing our own memories of the day, would choose. And it continues for hundreds of pages to be "compulsively readable," as reviewers say of books that surprise them by being more interesting than they had expected.Listen to the language as the authors build their case about security failures: "In sum, the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned."This is not just a list of mistakes. It is an insistent repetition of a basic sentence structure, driving home the word "not" until the reader can only wince when it is used for the last time: "The public was not warned." The language could be simpler, but not by much, which is remarkable in a government document written by committee."Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies," says the report, in a passage devoted to the government's inability to foresee the scope and fury of the attack. Clear writing is not a gift one associates with bureaucracies either, which suggests that an extraordinary effort has been made to gain a wide, popular audience for this document. All indications are that the authors have been successful. The book came out in paperback with a better than bland cover that shows well on the tables and in the windows of bookstores. Sales are brisk. It has hit No. 1 on the sales rank. In New York, the Daily News ran on its July 23 cover a picture of the book in a lurid red box with the words "Act Now!" in huge type. Thus, the book has status as a visual icon as well; simply hold the book and point toward Washington and that, in itself, is argument against government torpor.In her essay on the Watts report, Hardwick lamented the way language created distance, and how this distance reflected the divide between black and white America. The 9/11 report seems determined to remain open, and transparent. There is little of the defensive, closing-off of inquiry that one finds in the inert language of the Pearl Harbor commission ("it is not within our province," "it [can] have no direct bearing on the execution of the mandate appointing this commission," "we have made no detailed findings on the subject . . ."). And the structure of the report, alternating moment-by-moment narrative with chapters on history and background, reflects a desire to keep things open, and moving, as well.Chapter 1, "We Have Some Planes," recounts the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but ends with a fax, from 1998, in which Osama bin Laden declares war on the United States. It leaves the reader hanging by introducing the villain, and noting the first of many missed and ominous signals: "The fax had been sent from thousands of miles away by the followers of a Saudi exile gathered in one of the most remote and impoverished countries on earth." Chapter 7, "The Attack Looms," ends on Sept. 10: "Now 19 men waited in nondescript hotel rooms to board four flights the next morning."Ending a chapter with a dramatic ellipsis is a technique that belongs as much to pulp fiction as to any other form, including memoir. But again and again the language in this report returns to the memoirist's tone of tempered sadness. "Faced with insufferable heat, smoke, and fire, and with no prospect for relief, some jumped or fell from the building," reads a passage in Chapter 9. This sentence pains us not just because the events it describes are painful. It follows a logical emotional progression: insufferable pain, no hope, then death. That moment, when people hurled their bodies off the World Trade Center, into the void, is perhaps the most horrifying and haunting image of that horrifying day. When they come to one of the most dreaded moments in this story, the authors choose simplicity, a single sentence that condenses all the essential facts and balances them with transparent syntax.Government-appointed panels concern themselves almost exclusively with facts, responsibility and recommendations. Memoirists are primarily concerned with recollection and the problems of memory. And yet, in the middle of this endless parade of facts are sentences that remind one more of a solitary writer pondering the problem of how a single moment can forever alter our ability to see the past as once we saw it. "Hindsight can sometimes see the past clearly -- with 20/20 vision," the authors write. "But the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply into shadow."This is not limpid prose, and it's intriguing that, when the report comes to the issue of blame, its language loses its simplicity and heads toward metaphor, and not a particularly clear one either. But it is a small lapse. Consider this sentence, from a different report, which struggles to express a similar thought about blame and hindsight: "He made a mistake, a very grievous mistake, but one in which, in face of the practice and of past experience, negligence cannot be said to have had any part; and in the absence of negligence it is, in my opinion, impossible to fix Captain Smith with blame." Thus the British investigation into the Titanic sinking absolved the boat's captain of responsibility for having steered the ship into iceberg-infested waters.The remarkable thing about the 9/11 Commission Report is how little of this nervous, grammatical obfuscation it contains. Someone, in the crafting of this long tome, seems aware of the danger of language that hides, rather than reveals. The hijackers, we learn, developed codes to speak openly of their plans. "They discussed targets in coded language, pretending to be students discussing various fields of study: 'architecture' referred to the World Trade Center, 'arts' the Pentagon, 'law' the Capitol, and 'politics' the White House." And when referring to the date, they "used a riddle" -- 9/11, or 11/9 in the form the rest of the world uses, was called "two branches, a slash and a lollipop."Compare that with the report's demand that Americans, and their leaders, be precise in thinking and in terminology. Words laden with fear -- words that can be misused to manipulate fear -- don't clarify. "But the enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil," they write. "This vagueness blurs the strategy." Don't conflate categories, don't mix categories. "Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror." Again, those short, spare sentences.Memoirs of tragic events, if well written, both recall the past and put the past behind the author. The writer must prove him or herself changed, in some way. A memoir that shows the author still caught in cycles of recrimination and pain is a memoir probably best left in the author's desk drawer. The authors of the 9/11 Commission Report seem aware of that too, but they don't have the luxury of documenting change or growth in our national security policies. In that sense, it is half a memoir. The rest is left to us
Philip Kennicott is The Post's culture critic.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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