The 9/11 Inquiry: Paper Chase

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Sen. Graham talks about intelligence lapses prior to the attacks of Sept. 11

As the congressional inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence lapses continues, lawmakers are clear about one thing: There's a whole lot of information to sift through, and not a whole lot of time to sift. A joint Senate-House panel headed by Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee and House intelligence chair Porter Goss, both of Florida, is meant to provide lawmakers with a better roadmap of the American intelligence community. And while investigators want to know what's well paved, they're more interested in identifying the potholes and dead ends — and figuring out how to fix them before intelligence lapses lead to another terrorist attack.

Reports from the first two days of the closed-door meetings (sessions will open to the public later this month) indicate lawmakers are not shying away from homework — they plan to investigate CIA and FBI roles as far back as 1986. Some also appear slightly overwhelmed by the scope of what they've taken on. "There's a lot more information here than we thought," Goss told the Associated Press Monday.

So what is it that we want to glean from these mounds of papers? First, of course, we want to determine whether the CIA and FBI are capable of working together — and why they haven't been doing that for years. Second, we want to figure out the best way for the intelligence community to weed out real threats from hundreds of false alarms. And third, we want to know who, finally, will be responsible for the U.S. intelligence community — its successes and failures.

And rather than spend the next two or three years dissecting what was wrong and who didn't read the right memo and who forgot to call their supervisor moment, this congressional panel should focus on the past only inasmuch as it provides blueprints for what's next.

That's what President Bush says he's hoping for. He's looking to the panel to give him answers, not to place blame. He wants a Fortune 500 model investigation — efficient, competent and businesslike. He only wants one committee. And while he probably won't get anything nearly that streamlined (this is Washington, after all), he has a few factors working to his advantage, including the urgency of the mission (continuing threats of new terror attacks mean every day truly counts) and the proximity of the midterm elections (no candidate wants to be associated with an intelligence committee that?s dragging its heels.)

While no one is exactly sure what the outcome of this investigation will be — the appointment of an independent counsel? a bone-dry memo? searing partisan accusations? the public shaming of former FBI director Louis Freeh? — its very existence appeals to Americans' sense of frustration, especially as new revelations of lapses surface. Everyone, including the President, the public and each member of the congressional panel wants to know: how did so much crucial information slip through our intelligence channels? And how in the world can we keep that from happening again?