Members of Congress and Bush administration officials did what they least wanted to do this long, hot summer: return to Washington. And they did so for one of their least favorite reasons: to try to figure out how to restructure the federal bureaucracy. Blame it on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, whose July report put Democrats and Republicans on notice this election year. They must do something to address the confusing tangle of intelligence operations, or risk facing the wrath of voters if there's another major attack before the elections.
The commission devoted much of its report to exhaustively detailing federal attempts to thwart and respond to terrorist attacks before, during and after Sept. 11. The report culminated in a description of shortfalls in imagination, policy, capabilities and management. But it's the last category that demands the immediate attention of politicians, because it's the one where they need to step in and show leadership.
The 9/11 commission's analysis of the counterterrorism bureaucracy is damning. While various agencies have devoted more time and attention to coordinating their work to counter the threat of Islamist extremism, they have been far from fully successful. "In some ways, joint work has gotten better, and in some ways worse," the report notes dryly-and chillingly.
The anti-terrorism effort is arguably more diffuse than ever. The CIA still plays a central role, but the FBI's position is much more prominent, the commission noted. The Defense Department now has three commands primarily devoted to counterterrorism: Special Operations Command, Central Command and the new Northern Command. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security was created to reorganize domestic protection, the State Department maintains a critical role overseas, and the National Security Council at the White House has been joined with a parallel organization, the Homeland Security Council.
In the area of analyzing intelligence, the new interagency Terrorist Threat Integration Center is supposed to play the leading role. But its home agency, the CIA, still has its own Counterterrorist Center. The Defense Intelligence Agency and Homeland Security have separate analysis units. And the FBI has its Terrorist Screening Center.
"The U.S. government cannot afford so much duplication of effort," the commission declared. Its report included recommendations to address the situation, the two most prominent of which were creating a National Counterterrorism Center and replacing the current position of director of central intelligence with a national intelligence director.
Given the urgency of the situation, it's tempting to simply accept the commission's proposals in their entirety and get moving. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry couldn't resist that temptation. But his lock-stock-and-barrel reaction indicates a lack of seriousness about addressing management issues and an inability to resist trying to score some quick political points. President Bush also struck quickly to respond to the report. But his proposal for his own kind of national intelligence director raised more questions than it answered about who exactly would control budgets and staffing.
It was left to members of Congress to hold their noses and step into the morass. Committee chairmen quickly lined up more than a dozen hearings during the summer recess on various aspects of the commission's report.
It's easy to dismiss this approach as mere grandstanding-as some of it doubtless is. But it's also the first serious effort to get down to business on rationalizing the system for battling the terrorist threat. This is the hardest kind of work the government's legislative and executive apparatus undertakes. It involves overcoming turf fights, entrenched interests and bureaucratic inertia. Most of the time it's better just to avoid the whole process and develop workarounds.
Not now. The stakes are too high. And the fact that we're in the middle of a war on terror is no reason not to move forward. After all, as the commission noted, the last attempt to overhaul the bureaucracy to deal with a threat to the nation's safety was begun in the 1940s, when we were still at war. So it's time for presidential candidates, administration officials and agency executives to follow Congress' lead-and give legislators the information they need to do their job properly.