The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US intelligence know–and what did the President know and do about that? The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W. Bush–in which he was told that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network was interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States directly–should not have focused on whether the President ignored that information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes. Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full spin mode. The crucial issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center.”

Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA headquarters–information shared with the United States. Two weeks before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed the hijackers at a refueling stop).

From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility. In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House.

In 2001 the FBI–not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot–failed to recognize the significance of information its agents received while investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school, later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an airliner.

True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what’s the point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech eavesdropping if the system can’t sort out the valuable nuggets? Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on what’s now known, don’t deserve to be faulted for not discovering the 9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right direction.

There is evidence that the Bush team didn’t move quickly on the counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the Justice Department denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a follow-up?

The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who messed up and to be assured that those who did aren’t in a position to commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?

After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn’t rush to examine what went wrong. We’re too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd. That probe has gotten off to a terrible start–the investigators fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to conducting as much of it as possible in public.

“I don’t have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies,” said Vice President Cheney. But he has opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a significant–or intriguing–fact. And how can there be information without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew–but why he didn’t know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that are supposed to thwart and protect.