Cult of the Blue Ribbon

The 9/11 commission wouldn’t have stopped the underpants bomber.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean

If only we’d listened to the 9/11 commission! This has been the refrain since Dec. 25, when a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was thwarted by fellow passengers (and/or faulty equipment) in his attempt to blow up an airplane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. The commission’s chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, told the Wall Street Journal that there was insufficient follow-up to the commission report’s proposed creation of a National Counterterrorism Center and a directorate of national intelligence. But Congress did, in fact, create these agencies—notwithstanding the complaint of another commission member, former Navy Secretary John Lehman, who said the report’s warning about “bureaucratic bloat” was never heeded. Yet another commission member, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said that congressional oversight of the intelligence community remains too fragmented. But congressional oversight has never been a particularly good mechanism for anticipating and preventing disaster or (in this case) near-disaster. Congress is far better at assessing and assigning blame for disasters after they occur. Rest assured this will now happen.

The 9/11 commission had two tasks: to provide a reliable and thorough narrative about what went wrong on 9/11 and to recommend ways to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. It performed the first task quite well (though Philip Shenon argues in The Commission that its executive director, Philip Zelikow, did too much to shield President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice from blame). But the commission fumbled badly on the second task.

Some of its recommendations were just silly. “The Department of Homeland Security,” the 9/11 report said, “and its oversight committees should regularly assess the type of threats the country faces to determine a.) the adequacy of the government’s plans—and the progress against those plans—to protect America’s critical infrastructure and b.) the readiness of the government to respond to the threats that the United States might face.” This is like recommending that the sun rise in the east and set in the west. There was no danger this directive wouldn’t be followed, because it described what was occurring already. In a similar vein, the commission recommended that the U.S. government develop “a realistic strategy to keep possible terrorists insecure and on the run, using all elements of national power. We should reach out, listen to, and work with other countries that can help.” Sheesh, why didn’t I think of that?

Other recommendations sounded tough but were empty. Declaring that the government of Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf “represents the best hope for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (uh-oh), the commission urged the United States to “support Pakistan’s government in its struggle against extremists” but only “so long as Pakistan’s leaders remain willing to make difficult choices on their own.” Today Pakistan is ruled by a corrupt ninny intent chiefly on holding onto nominal power. But rest assured—no matter what he does or who replaces him, the United States will continue to “support Pakistan’s government in its struggle against extremists,” because the alternative (duh!) is to hand nuclear weapons over to the Taliban. Not a single member of the distinguished 9/11 commission could possibly disagree with this strategy (though none would likely broadcast it).

One recommendation, creation of the directorate of national intelligence, was an affirmatively bad idea, because rather than eliminate previous turf wars it (predictably) created a messy new one between the Central Intelligence Agency, which traditionally has taken the lead in foreign intelligence, and the new national intelligence director, who (at least in theory) is supposed to do the same. The CIA is said to have won, at least for now, and to the extent the CIA remains dominant, we’ll probably wonder why we need a national intelligence director at all.

About the only persuasive recommendation the 9/11 panel made was creation of the National Counterterrorism Center. (Click here for its handy guide to how far away you should stand from various types of explosions in the unlikely event you’re warned in advance one will occur.)

This recommendation, which became law, was based on the most agonizing lesson of 9/11: Had various snippets of intelligence available from different federal agencies been put together, the attacks could have been prevented. This was so immediately evident that a year and a half after 9/11 (and a year before the 9/11 commission issued its report), the federal government created a Terrorist Threat Integration Center. The 9/11 commission made the important decision to rename it the National Counterterrorism Center.

Unfortunately, the National Counterterrorism Center appears to be precisely where the various pieces of available information necessary to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be underpants bomber, off any U.S.-bound commercial airliner failed to be integrated. We don’t yet know the details, but President Obama said on Jan. 5, “This was not a failure to collect intelligence. It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had.” Reportedly, the National Security Agency got word this past summer that terrorists based in Yemen were preparing to use a Nigerian in an attack. Subsequently, a CIA official participated in an embassy meeting in which Abdulmutallab’s father, a prominent Nigerian banker, expressed worries about his son’s radicalization. Information about the embassy meeting was reportedly forwarded to the National Counterterrorism Center; a biographical dossier the CIA prepared on Abdulmutallab after the embassy meeting reportedly wasn’t; and it appears unlikely that the NSA passed its leads on to the National Counterterrorism Center. (The NSA is most notorious among all intelligence agencies for its reluctance to share information.) If the National Counterterrorism Center had been in possession of all available information, it may still have lacked the manpower to analyze it, because, unbelievably (Spencer Ackerman reported in the Washington Independent), among 300-odd analysts working there, fewer than a dozen are Middle East specialists.

There will be plenty of time to blame somebody for this screw-up, which very nearly killed a planeload of travelers. But to blame the president, or Congress, or ourselves for failing to heed the 9/11 commission’s recommendations is a waste of breath.

Update, Jan. 8:  A declassified summary  of the White House’s preliminary review of the Dec. 25 incident indicates that officials at the National Counterterrorism Center (and also at the CIA) had access to “all” relevant information in the government’s possession, but “as is usually the case” it was “fragmentary and embedded in a large volume of other data.” These officials “did not search all available databases to uncover additional derogatory information that could have been correlated with Mr. Abdulmutallab.”

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.