Give 9/11 Panel More Time

With FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III declaring anew in recent days that terrorists will “quite probably” attack the U.S. again, the need to unravel what went wrong on Sept. 11 remains as urgent as ever. A clear understanding of where intelligence services, the White House and other government bodies may have gone astray is vital to helping prevent new terrorist strikes. But unless the independent federal commission investigating Sept. 11 gets a new deadline, it can’t carry out this mandate. The commission has created some self-inflicted wounds, but Congress and the Bush administration must agree to its plea to extend the May 27 deadline for it to issue its comprehensive report.

The panel isn’t like a high school student, stalling for time on its big exam. Its respected members have hit some real, deplorable roadblocks as they have tried to do their work. The administration, which initially opposed the commission’s creation but then endorsed it, has hampered its research and insists on shortening its life span from 24 months, as originally proposed by Congress, to 18 months. This timetable raises questions of cynical political calculation -- whether the administration really wants to know what went awry in the past to fix it or whether it just wants to get any damaging revelations out well before the fall presidential campaign heats up.

And, while government bodies may have sound reasons not to disclose information, the 9/11 panel has run a sad gantlet as it has sought data crucial to its mission -- some 1,600 interviews and 2 million documents -- from sources as varied as New York City to NORAD, the air defense command center. It also has battled with the White House, Pentagon and intelligence services over sensitive materials. The commission only recently received copies of the “president’s daily brief,” crafted by the CIA. These files could reveal whether President Bush had been warned before 9/11 of the possibility of terrorist attacks using commercial planes.

Commissioners themselves have hit complications while sifting history; two, because of their previous high posts, found themselves answering queries from their fellow panelists about their past duties and actions. This odd turn, as reported elsewhere, is just one more distraction that threatens to disrupt a keystone of the panel’s efforts: Can this bipartisan group, as advocates once hoped, lay to rest the burgeoning doubts, rumors and conspiracy theories about official policies and practices that may have allowed an attack that killed thousands?

It’s important work that deserves more cooperation and time -- not just for history’s sake but also to satisfy victims’ families and to prevent any repeat of what may have been deadly mistakes about the nation’s security.