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Outside looking in

COMPELLING, CHILLING, maddening -- the most authoritative account to date of how a small band of terrorists landed a devastating blow on the world's most powerful nation emerged last week in vivid detail.

As pieced together by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it was a chronicle of confusion from top to bottom.

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No one -- from the White House to the Pentagon to the air traffic controllers to the cops and firefighters on the street -- was prepared to deal with an unconventional style of warfare using hijacked commercial airliners as missiles.

Commission member and former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton kindly termed it "a failure of imagination."

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Far more successful has been the commission itself, which overcame years of White House resistance to deliver what its advocates had sought -- a painstakingly investigated and detached view of the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.

Critics call the account imperfect, incomplete. Others complain of bias, saying the commission, which includes present and former politicians, has too many showboats with their own agendas. And recommendations for how to prevent or at least minimize damage from future attacks that represent a key portion of the commission's mission are still to come.

Yet it's clear this is a job that could only have been done by a group educated in the topic but with enough distance from the administration and Congress to be independent. The commission's findings have been worth the wait -- and worth all the effort families of attack victims put into lobbying for an outside investigation.

Little wonder President Bush resisted the inquiry at every step of the way -- including resisting the initial proposal for an outside review made a few months after the attacks, the commission's pursuit of classified documents, and even its request that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify in public.

The commission has revealed a White House in alarming disarray in the first critical hours after reports of the hijackings came in, most distressingly in arriving at and communicating a decision to shoot down suspicious airliners. As it happened, the order from Vice President Dick Cheney was never carried out.

The panel also dismissed Mr. Bush's assertion of a collaborative link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, undercutting a key justification for the U.S. war on Iraq.

But as the president discovered, his resistance to the commission was futile. The pressure from Sept. 11 families determined to honor their loved ones by making sure lessons are learned from the tragedy was so strong, so potentially harmful to Mr. Bush's re-election effort, that he was forced to capitulate again and again.

Putting most of what's been learned into practice is a task yet ahead. One lesson, though, is already clear: Catastrophic national events demand a thorough look back by investigators with no personal stake in the outcome.


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