THE REPORT of the Sept. 11 commission, like others before it, made clear that there are major problems in the way the U.S. government fights the war against terrorism -- and that corrective action needs to be taken before the impetus for change dissipates. It would be a major loss if the commission's recommendations were allowed, like those of others before it, to gather dust, especially if any of them could help prevent the al Qaeda attack that U.S. intelligence agencies fear may be near execution. For that reason we can only welcome the decision by congressional leaders to hold hearings in August, during the summer recess, on the commission's report, as well as President Bush's move to quickly consider which of the recommended steps might be taken immediately.
A serious response to the commission, however, should not be allowed to become a political bidding contest between Mr. Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry. It was beginning to look that way over the weekend, first with Mr. Kerry's declaration that most of the commission's recommendations should be adopted "with great haste," and then with reports from the White House that Mr. Bush might respond with action this week -- perhaps not coincidentally during or immediately after the Democratic convention. In fact, great haste would seem to be the worst response -- short of doing nothing at all -- to tackling some of the more far-reaching of the commission's recommendations. These include the creation of a new Cabinet-level position for supervising intelligence as well as a counterterrorism center that would exercise authority across existing agency boundaries.
There are good reasons for considering these major reforms: above all, the dismal failure of the 15 existing intelligence organizations to share information or effectively coordinate their work. The commission's recommendation for fixing this, the counterterrorism center, is based on a 1986 military reform that has proven successful in bringing the Army, Air Force and Navy together for joint operations in wartime. But there are serious objections to the proposed intelligence reorganization that need to be weighed. Among them are the risks of creating another layer of bureaucracy, of eliminating what can now be constructively different points of view among various agencies, and of creating a relationship between the president and the chief of intelligence that is either too political or not sufficiently close, depending on whether the chief serves at the pleasure of the president. The impact of any change on American civil liberties must also be carefully considered. There is no cause to repeat the rush that preceded passage of the USA Patriot Act, which most members of Congress never read.
There are certainly measures that Mr. Bush can take without prolonged debate: One we favor is the adoption, in consultation with allies, of new standards for the humane treatment of foreign prisoners. Recommendations by the commission on speeding up improvements in transportation and border security could be taken up swiftly. Congress can and should focus on the sensible and badly needed reorganization of its committees and oversight the commission proposes, along with such related reforms as making the budgets of intelligence agencies public. But the restructuring of the intelligence community should not be a race, much less a partisan one. The debate should begin immediately -- but it need not, and probably should not, be completed before November.