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A funny thing happens on the way to reform

"We hope our report will encourage our fellow citizens to study, reflect -
and act."

So ends the brief preface to the Final Report of the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the 9/11 Commission Report for
short. Five hundred sixty-seven pages later, it's a little disconcerting to
ask what course of action the commission had in mind. Surely an
establishment group like this wouldn't have meant to call for revolution?
But given the small-mindedness, folly, cross-purposes and incompetence the
report exposes in the lead-up to 9/11, anything less seems akin to sitting
on our fists.

America got its start with a tax revolt, and there is no doubt the colonies
would have bristled with pitchforks, and even a spearhead or two depending
on tribal allegiances, at the thought of spending half the national revenue
for protective systems that flunked all the main tests. But the oppressor
was a great ocean away then, and the colonies (much less the tribes) didn't
have a say in how the taxes collected from them were spent.

The great achievement of the 9/11 Commission Report, then, may have been to
hint strongly that our oppressors are among us now, in the halls of
Congress and the Pentagon to be exact, and that the representation we
expect really doesn't matter the way we thought it might.

Interestingly enough, Indians are ahead of their fellow citizens in these
regards. Americans who care to accept the commission's charge - to study,
reflect and take action - will have a chance to ponder what the betrayal of
every promised benefit, purchased at almost infinite price, must feel like.
By only reading the report, one can get a small sense of what Indian trust
beneficiaries experience as they resist an entrenched monopolistic
bureaucracy opposed to any oversight, and quite estranged from the simple
concept of doing well by clients in the clear light of day.

Congress didn't create this mess in its entirety; but despite the efforts
of a heroic handful, Congress as a whole has basically decided that Indians
aren't worth the trouble ... just as it felt all along about Indian trust
funds, just as it felt about the terrorist threat until 9/11 inconvenienced
the comfort level in yon hallowed halls.

Here is the Commission's last word on congressional oversight as it
concerned the greatest threat to American national security since the
Soviet Union (some would say since Imperial Japan):

"In fact, Congress had a distinct tendency to push questions of emerging
national security threats off its own plate, leaving them for others to
consider. Congress asked outside commissions to do the work that arguably
was at the heart of its own oversight responsibilities. Beginning in 1999,
the reports of these commissions made scores of recommendations to address
terrorism and homeland security but drew little attention from Congress.
Most of their impact came after 9/11."

What do we think of people who avoid difficult responsibility when it
counts, only to outdo themselves in asserting it once the damage is done?

But the Commission implies worse of Congress, almost without noticing. In
describing the development of a post-Cold War terrorism that went
unnoticed, it offers this revealing sentence: "Saudi Arabia and the United
States supplied billions of dollars worth of secret assistance to rebel
groups in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation."

This secret assistance was a part of the military budget off-limits to
congressional oversight. Though the Commission goes out of its way to make
a somewhat unconvincing case that the 9/11 terrorists received none of this
secret money, it's not as if we'll ever know - Congress simply conspired
with unelected military leaders to overthrow the Constitution and provide
secret funding, and now we have only conflicted interests to attest that
al-Qaeda didn't get fat on it.

In any case, it seems unlikely that al-Qaeda could have become a
sustainable terrorist threat to the U.S. without the unwitting help of an
AWOL Congress. Our military operatives and their secret money left
Afghanistan when the Soviet Union did, leaving al-Qaeda a wealthy presence
in the planet's poorest country while reinforcing the image of the U.S. as
a self-interested exploiter and an infidel with imperial interests in the
region. Those are the explosive elements that touched off 9/11. Would
active congressional oversight have resulted in any different scenario?
We'll never know, and that is the worst thing about secret funding - it
cancels debate on the alternatives.

Congress tried a similar trick with regard to the 9/11 Commission Report.
It couldn't cancel debate, but it tried to render the popular report as
harmless as possible by scheduling hurried hearings, hearings that would
show Congress on the side of reform while it avoided dealing with difficult
issues on the eve of an election. Individual commissioners, supported by
many 9/11 families, resisted this treatment and demanded real change in the
restructuring of the intelligence community.

They didn't go quite as far as all that in demanding that congressional
committees be restructured, in keeping with another commission
recommendation. Perhaps that is where they count on the public to act.

In any case, it's not clear that either measure will be enough to justify
the mountain of tax money that buys our damaged goods in domestic
protection. After all, 9/11 was only the last of three great assaults that
struck at the roots of American democracy, here at the beginning of our new
century. The first was the Enron bankruptcy and subsequent revelations that
proved American corporations, along with a supporting cast of bankers,
accountants and congressional members, a front for fraudulent business
practices. The second was the presidential election of 2000 - whatever one
may think of the outcome, sorting through it all shook the bedrock concept
of one person, one vote. The atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, were a shock of
another magnitude, challenging our sense of national exceptionalism in
history. In view of these events, tinkering with an established political
order seems self-defeatingly tame.

Congressional members fought the Cold War by voting for vast defense
budgets on the theory we couldn't afford to be wrong about Soviet threats
to overthrow world order (and on condition, of course, that these budgets
included handsome "defense" appropriations in each member's home state or
district). They have responded to 9/11 in the same way.

The 9/11 Commission Report seems to want a different response, one that
would begin at the ballot box and proceed to an overhaul of committee
structure in Congress. Congress won't be up to that, not with all the power
at stake in committee structure. So perhaps the ultimate question before us
is whether reform should end there, or push on into the political unknown,
prodded by all the spearheads and pitchforks of our forebears.