It might be easier to take seriously the latest report of the 9/11 commission if it weren’t filled with politically correct nostrums that will do little to protect us from terrorism. The bipartisan commission, which ended its official status as a government organization in July 2004 after the release of its "final" report, reconstituted itself as a private, nonprofit group. The panel’s chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, says this is the group’s last act — but who knows. The members seem to relish their status as gadflies and love the limelight. But their criticisms and recommendations have not always hit the mark. This latest round is a case in point.
The commission gave failing or near-failing grades to the government in several areas that clearly need improvement, including airline passenger pre-screening, checked bag and cargo screening, and government information sharing. The government has been slow to implement needed changes in these areas, but it is unclear that the reforms the commission envisions would do the trick either. Neither the commission — nor the administration for that matter — would tolerate the kind of passenger profiling that might reduce needless screening and more effectively narrow the search to those most likely to commit terrorist acts. Sadly, both the commission and the Bush administration would sacrifice security to keep from insulting or inconveniencing any ethnic or religious group. But the real problem with the commission’s latest round of criticisms is its straying into areas that have almost nothing to do with better security.
For example, the commission gives the government an "F" for failing to declassify the overall intelligence budget. Their rationale is that with intelligence funding hidden in the overall defense appropriations bill, it is difficult for Congress to exercise proper oversight. Not only would separating out intelligence funding provide useful information to our enemies, it would also subject the funding to the pork-barrel politics that infect so much of our federal budget, including defense spending. Ironically, the commission seems to understand how political the funding process is — this new report gives an "F" to the current system of allocating homeland security grants. Noting that the House has passed amendments that would greatly improve the situation (and raise the commission grade to "A," if signed into law), the commission says nonetheless that "security funds continue to be distributed without regard for risk, vulnerability or the consequences of an attack." Under current law, many communities at almost no risk of attack receive homeland security funds, while at-risk communities get less than they need — and worse, the money sometimes goes for inappropriate purposes. In Columbus, Ohio, the city spent some of its homeland security funds to buy Kevlar vests for its police dogs. Do we really want our intelligence budget subject to similar pressure to spend more money badly?
The commission also gives low grades on government funding for educational and cultural exchanges with Muslim countries and says the United States should do more to fund secular education programs in the Arab world. "The number of young people coming to study in the United States from the Middle East continues to decline (down 2 percent this year, following declines of 9 percent and 10 percent in the previous two years)," the report complains. Do the commissioners even remember that most of the 9/11 hijackers were in the country on student visas? Tightening the rules for admitting students from countries known to export terrorists may well be one of the most important reforms we’ve enacted since that attack and should be seen as a sign of success, not failure. And while it would be wonderful if we could convince our putative allies, especially the Saudis, to stop financing Islamo-fascist madrassahs around the world, simply giving more money to governments in the Middle East to set up alternative schools would not guarantee a pro-Western curriculum.
Finally, the most irrelevant assessment the commission made was in the area of terrorist detention, awarding an "F" for failing to develop standards for detention and prosecution of captured terrorists. The government has standards — which are not always followed — but what the commission really wants, I suspect, are different standards that would give accused terrorists access to U.S. courts with all their protections for the rights of the accused. Far from making us more secure, such "reforms" would allow our enemies to exploit our freedoms in order to destroy them.
The 9/11 commission has done some important work in focusing attention on lax security and bureaucratic infighting that undermine our safety, but it has outlived its usefulness. This final report comes none too soon.