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Securing a Safe America Requires Accountability for 9/11 Mistakes

Last week, the declassified version of the House-Senate joint inquiry’s report into the September 11 terrorist attacks was finally released to the public, seven months after it was completed. The purpose of the report was not to assign blame for the horrific event, but to find out what could have been done to prevent it, or a more tragic terrorist attack in the future.

The bipartisan congressional panel, which I had the honor of co-chairing, found that there had been opportunities for our intelligence agencies, including the CIA, FBI and others, to prevent the attacks — if the right combination of skill, cooperation, creativity and some good luck had been brought to task. Unfortunately, nearly two years after September 11, 2001, nobody has been held accountable for the drastic intelligence failure.

The seven-month delay in the release of the joint inquiry report and the amount of material still censored reflects the excessive secrecy, bordering on paranoia, that has been a feature of the Bush administration since its early days in office. It is time for this pattern of secrecy by President Bush — on issues ranging from homeland security to the economy, from the environment to the war in Iraq — to come to an end.

On the day the report was released, the American people heard from the families of September 11 victims who wanted to know why the Bush administration was refusing to allow portions of the report to be released to the public. Why, they asked, is the president determined to keep under wraps critical parts of the report, including the section on foreign governments’ involvement in aiding and abetting the terrorists.

The recent scandal over the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence data leading up to the war in Iraq is a glaring example of why our government should be open and honest with the American people. I voted against going to war with Iraq because I believed — and still do — that it diverted resources away and stole momentum from the war on terrorism. The war in Iraq alienated many of our partners around the world in the fight against terrorism, and has allowed Al Qaeda to regenerate and become stronger, not weaker. And nearly two years after September 11, we have failed to lay a finger on Hezbollah and Hamas, the “A-Team” of terrorist organizations around the world.

Yet the secrecy persists in the administration. Bush would do well to heed the words of President Kennedy, spoken during his first year in the White House: “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers, which are cited to justify it.”

If President Bush doesn’t trust the American people with the truth, then how can the American people trust President Bush with running our government?

Yet while the secrecy surrounding the report should concern us all very deeply, it must not distract us from the report’s contents. The report, as published, contains urgent lessons that must be absorbed by all Americans. It also contains 19 recommendations to overhaul the intelligence community and improve the working relationship between the federal government and state and local first responders. If the recommendations are heeded by the White House, Congress and the intelligence agencies, we should be able to make great strides in improving the security of our homeland and in deterring another terrorist attack.

To ensure the right of every American to feel safe and secure in his or her home, this week I introduced broad, sweeping legislation to address our intelligence and national security shortcomings. Among other measures, the legislation calls for taking up a key recommendation of our congressional panel calling on the CIA’s director to implement new accountability standards throughout the intelligence community. These new standards would identify poor performance and affix responsibility for that performance. It would also recognize and reward excellence. Another priority is a top-to-bottom review of the federal government’s system for classifying information.

As we learned from our investigation into the September 11 attacks, if intelligence agencies had compared notes and shared information we might have been able to do something about the terrorists’ plot. More coordination and cooperation is essential to making Americans safer.

To ensure that the sorts of communications problems that led to breakdowns before September 11 never happen again, I am calling for the creation of a Cabinet-level position of director of national intelligence. The national intelligence director would have authority over the 13 intelligence agencies, and would review and approve budgets for the intelligence community. I believe the creation of this Cabinet-level position is critical to coordinating our intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts.

Accountability must go beyond the intelligence community, however. The time has come for the Bush administration to do right by the American people. Censoring significant portions of the congressional panel’s report denies the American people the opportunity to fully understand what their government failed to do leading up to the September 11 attacks, and what their government should do to protect the American people in the future.

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