Another Pearl Harbor! That was the reaction of many after hijackers managed to turn airliners into low-tech cruise missiles and kill 6,000 people. Like the Japanese raid on the US Navy base, the September 11 assault was a surprise attack, and as the rubble cooled, this tragedy, like its 1941 predecessor, prompted questions about whether agencies of the US government had profoundly failed its citizens by not foreseeing this possibility and by not reacting to what in hindsight appears to have been a variety of hints. After Pearl Harbor, Congress conducted an extensive inquiry into what had gone wrong prior to that particular day of infamy. The Congress of today ought to do likewise.

There has not yet been a tremendous cry for such an endeavor. Harvard law professor Philip Heymann, who was the number-two official in Janet Reno’s Justice Department, did call on President Bush and Congress to hatch a special commission to examine how the suicide hijackers and their fellow conspirators were able to elude the FBI and the CIA.

In a passionate speech on the Senate floor, Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, noted that 3,000 families in his state, which lost parents, spouses and children in the attack, were let down by the government, and he urged his colleagues to create a board of inquiry. (“I will not be satisfied with new assignments of powers or appropriating more money [to law enforcement and intelligence agencies]. I want to know what went wrong, and why, and who.”) At a Congressional hearing, Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence subcommittee on terrorism, said, “We will undertake a complete investigation.” But the House Intelligence Committee and its Senate counterpart have yet to announce plans for any major investigation. Nor has the Bush Administration. Moreover, there is no indication that if an inquiry does happen it will follow in the tradition of the Pearl Harbor probe and be open to public scrutiny.

In 1945, the House and the Senate established a joint committee to mount “a full and complete investigation of the facts relating to the events and circumstances leading up to or following” the attack upon Pearl Harbor. That committee was wracked by internal politics. Some Republicans hoped to show that the now-deceased FDR had stumbled into an unnecessary war (or, worse, had conspired to enter the war), and Democrats aimed to defend the Great Man and remind the public that prior to the war prominent Republican lawmakers had been advocates of isolationism–a very unpopular position following the war. The committee’s final report ended up more to the liking of the Democrats by concluding that institutional problems–not senior officials in the Roosevelt Administration–were to blame. Political maneuverings aside, the committee did hold seventy days of open hearings involving forty-three witnesses; it examined intelligence nitty-gritty; and it produced 15,000 pages of testimony. The committee also made public the records of seven prior Pearl Harbor inquiries, which totaled approximately 10 million words.

In the wake of September 11, there are many questions regarding the pre-attack performance of the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. Information obtained during the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was never fully analyzed. The CIA provided the FBI with the names of 100 suspected associates of Osama bin Laden, yet the bureau was unable to deal with the information. The FBI did not vigorously pursue indications that people suspected of being linked to terrorists were learning to fly airliners at US flight schools. The intelligence community and law enforcement did little after being told in 1995 that bin Laden associates had considered a scheme that entailed mass hijackings and crashing an airliner into CIA headquarters. A few media reports note that overseas intelligence agencies may have picked up advance notice of the September 11 attack. If so, why did the CIA apparently, through liaison relationships, not hear of these hints? The attack also prompts the question, Are the billions of dollars a year the United States spends on electronic surveillance being wasted?

Certainly, the Administration and lawmakers can argue that the priority these days is hunting down and neutralizing the September 11 plotters and thwarting future acts of terrorism. “We’re still working on the immediate,” says a staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. After all, Congress did not get around to the Pearl Harbor investigation until the war was won. But waiting for the “war on terrorism” to be concluded before examining intelligence and law enforcement failures is not much of an option. This “war” is not likely to have a clear completion date. In the meantime, effective intelligence and law enforcement is required to detect and foil additional terrorism. Hence, the pressing need for looking at what went awry prior to September 11. Noting that the intelligence community budget is reportedly $30 billion a year and that FBI counterterrorism funding tripled in the past eight years, Torricelli remarked, “What of the enormous intelligence and security and law enforcement apparatus we have built through these decades? What happened?… It is not enough to ask for more [money]. It is necessary to assess what went wrong. Did leadership fail? Were plans inadequate? Did we have the wrong people or were they on the wrong mission?”

If any such inquiry gets off the ground, the argument will be made that these matters cannot be poked and probed in public, for that would compromise intelligence sources and methods and, consequently, undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts. No doubt, there are areas that ought to be explored privately. But sources and methods should not be used as cover for screw-ups and mistakes–which has too often happened in past intelligence scandals–and a Congressional inquiry should strive to proceed in the open. That means this is an exercise best not left to the intelligence committees, which are accustomed to working behind closed doors. Taking its lead from the 79th Congress, this Congress should assemble a joint House-Senate committee that operates in public view to the extent possible and provides an accounting of how and why the much-funded spies and cops of the United States were unprepared for the horrific events of September 11.