ARLINGTON, Va. - On a recent Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney referred to highly classified intelligence, which he said would be enough to convince anyone of Saddam Hussein's evil intentions if it could be made public.
A good follow-up question would have been, "Mr. Vice President, speaking of intelligence, what is being done to improve ours?"
Former President George Bush told the Today show on NBC last week that he thinks the CIA, which he once headed, has been too harshly criticized for failing to sound the alarm about the 9/11 terrorist attack.
"What I didn't like was the blame game that followed," Mr. Bush said. "I get so irritated by these Monday morning quarterbacks who come rushing in with what should have happened."
Two of those quarterbacks are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In candid interviews with The New York Times on Sept. 10, Sens. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and the committee chairman, Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, indict the CIA and other intelligence agencies for failing to warn of the attack.
Mr. Graham said, "We had significant blocks of information, but those blocks never got before a single set of eyes who could analyze them and put them together and see the pattern that was emerging from those individual blocks.
"That's going to be a very big challenge to see that we can break down our organizational and cultural resistance to achieve the purpose of getting maximum value out of the intelligence that we collect."
Mr. Shelby charged that intelligence agencies are dragging their feet supplying information to the committee, hoping to run out the clock on the current Congress so they won't be held fully accountable.
"I think the failures in the intelligence are so widespread, so deep," he said, "that we owe the American people a searching job. ... Time is on the side of those people who've been investigated. ... We were told that there would be cooperation ... and I question that. ... Most of the information that our staff has been able to get that is real meaningful has had to be extracted piece by piece."
If the senators are tired of waiting for the intelligence community to be more forthcoming, they should read a new book by reporter Bill Gertz of The Washington Times. Mr. Gertz, who may have more defense and intelligence sources in Washington than the congressional oversight committees, has written Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11 (Regnery Publishing).
Mr. Gertz summarizes his remarkably detailed and well-sourced conclusions: "The intelligence failures of Sept. 11 were the result of institutional, systemic and cultural problems within the U.S. intelligence community, made up of more than a dozen agencies.
"At its core, Sept. 11 represented a failure of human intelligence-gathering, not analysis or technical spying."
This is not "Monday morning quarterbacking." This is an indictment of failure, sparked by institutional rivalries, self-preservation and even cover-up, which is what Mr. Shelby suggests.
Mr. Gertz writes of how Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Kie Fallis was blocked from issuing a terrorist threat warning that could have saved the lives of American sailors killed in the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.
"Fallis fought hard with an entrenched bureaucracy to have a warning issued about an imminent attack, but DIA refused," Mr. Gertz reports. "The reason was office politics: He had dated a woman who wrote an astounding incorrect analysis the month before the Cole bombing, arguing that terrorists were not capable of conducting a small boat attack on a ship. DIA higher-ups said he pushed his analysis to contradict that of his ex-girlfriend. In reality, Fallis had developed a unique methodology that led him to conclude an al-Qaida attack was imminent."
Mr. Gertz reveals an internal letter from CIA spies sharply criticized the politically correct policies of CIA Director George Tenet. Numerous other CIA shortcomings and failures are detailed by Mr. Gertz.
These kinds of pettiness, inattention and incompetence led to Sept. 11, a low-tech attack that could have been prevented. Learning what went wrong, and why, is essential to making sure that this sorrowful event is not repeated.
If the Senate Intelligence Committee continues to have problems extracting information from the CIA and other agencies, President Bush has the power to order them to cooperate, or to name an independent commission without an expiration date to learn the facts.
Preserving American lives is more important than preserving the hides of government officials. Meanwhile, reading Mr. Gertz' book gives congressional investigators and the rest of us a peek into the reasons behind Sept. 11 and shows how it need not have happened.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at www.calthomas.com.