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Security comes first

Believe it or not, the independent commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks wasn't formed to help President Bush get reelected or to provide his Democratic rivals with campaign fodder. The bipartisan panel has a much more important goal: to find out what went wrong on and before Sept. 11, 2001 and to help the nation stop future attacks. So why are the White House and House Republican leaders standing in the way of a two-month extension for the committee to complete its work?

The answer, of course, is politics. Republicans fear that the commission might discover intelligence shortcomings that would embarrass the Bush administration. And the closer those findings come to the election (the mandated deadline is May 27), the more damaging they could be to the president, or so the argument goes.

In its latest public hearings, the commission questioned why the the Federal Aviation Administration hadn't combined terrorism watch lists that might have kept some of the hijackers off the fatal flights. A former FAA official revealed that the agency didn't know until recently about a State Department list that named thousands of terrorists. Such revelations suggest an incompetence that may have been tolerated by more than one administration.

That day's heroism was also revisited as the committee played, for the first time publicly, a taped conversation between a flight attendant aboard American Airlines Flight 11 and a reservations office. In a voice portraying calm professionalism, attendant Betty Ong described efforts to stop a violent takeover of the airplane before her phone fell silent. Soon after, Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Protecting Americans from another day as horrible as 9/11 should remain the committee's focus. To complete the job, the panel is asking for an extension at least until July. "We are telling the Congress and the president what we need to do the best possible job," said chairman Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey.

The Bush administration has been grudgingly cooperative at best with the committee and has itself to blame for the delay. Had the administration been more forthcoming with documents and access to officials, the committee could have completed its work sooner.

Maybe some of the committee's findings will cast a harsh light on administration practices, but that is certainly not the purpose of its work, and the causes and cures for 9/11 are likely to have a broad sweep. Even if Democrats were to use portions of the committee's report for political purposes, the tactic would likely backfire. Americans have made it clear they want protection, not political opportunism, to be the result.

Congress should grant the 9/11 commission an extension, and the White House should be clear that it supports this important work, no matter how long it takes.