Ashcroft to Mueller to Anybody Else

Double-Playing 9-11 Errors

With Senate and House intelligence committees finally demanding answers for pre-9-11 blunders, the bottom line should be whether even the most skillful attempts at damage control can keep FBI director Robert Mueller or CIA chief George Tenet from losing their jobs. Attorney General John Ashcroft is doing his best to bail a leaking boat dry, but in the end he could sink right along with those he's now trying to save. "We're at war," Ashcroft said on Fox last Sunday, ham-handedly repeating his fear-inducing mantra. "We have 550 million people crossing our borders back and forth every year in the United States. We know that they train tens of thousands of people in the Al Qaeda camps."

More significantly, Ashcroft talked about the FBI as if it were in some distant country. "You know, we've been hearing from the field that FBI agents have suggestions. One of their suggestions is, give us the authority to listen to what's happening in public places in our community, to surf the Net, for example." From his pie-eyed naïveté, you'd never have guessed that Ashcroft, as head of the Justice Department, was the FBI's top dog.

But Ashcroft needn't fear his former colleagues on Capitol Hill. To D.C. old-timers, the very idea that lawmakers will run an impartial investigation is cause for merriment, because intelligence committees and spy agencies have always been connected by a revolving door. Porter Goss, the Florida Republican who heads the House panel, was a clandestine CIA officer during the Cold War. The staff director of the Senate panel recently left to work as a top aide to Tenet, who himself had been an aide to the committee. And the committees, now operating jointly, had to get rid of their investigations director, Britt Snider, once inspector general at the CIA.

These incestuous relations have led to scandal. John Millis, a 13-year veteran of the CIA, was staff director of the House Intelligence Committee when he committed suicide in June 2000. At the time of his death, he had been suspended with pay and was under investigation by his own committee for reasons never made clear.

Committee members are well aware of the problems the revolving doors can cause. "You know, [House committee chair Goss] is a former CIA employee, and I know he's close to a lot of people over there," Richard Shelby, a member of the Senate panel, told Roll Call in October. "I don't think we should be too close to anybody we have oversight of, because you can't do your job. You become subverted by the process."

Yet nothing changes, because the intelligence committees are in essence cozy clubs. They operate largely in secret and are accountable to absolutely no one. They supervise 13 different federal spy outfits and a $30 billion budget. They see all sorts of classified stuff, but aren't required to undergo background checks. And how could anyone take seriously intelligence-oversight committees that allowed the CIA to field agents who could neither read nor write the languages of the regions on which they were spying?

That's one reason Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's call for an independent commission is opposed by President Bush and others in Congress. It could cause a dreadful scene, with senior lawmakers and their staffs in the spotlight along with the intelligence chiefs. After all, what did the members of Congress know before 9-11? Might they have forewarned us?

In other times, reorganization of the FBI by conservatives seeking efficiency in government might have worked as damage control. But last week all that notion brought was an angry demand from The Wall Street Journal for Mueller to get out. Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush-era speechwriter, even raised the possibility that there might be a mole (à la Robert Hanssen) at work within the upper echelons of the Bureau. Added Timothy Lynch of the libertarian Cato Institute, "Congress should not accept the hype surrounding this FBI 'overhaul.' "

The White House swiftly distanced itself from both Ashcroft and Mueller. "As you might imagine, a lot of things are prepared within agencies," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's designated hitter, on May 21. "They're distributed internally, they're worked on internally. . . . He doesn't recall seeing anything [about suspected terrorists training at flight schools]. I don't recall seeing anything of this kind."

By June 3, Bush was still trying to tamp down the fire. "When you read about the FBI, I want you to know that the FBI is changing its culture," he told reporters in Arkansas. "[T]hey're doing a better job of communicating with the CIA. They're now sharing intelligence."

The spy agencies' loudest critics have come from the right, not the left. Republican Shelby was first off the mark. "I can tell you I really believe that George W. Bush—our president—is up to the task," he told CNN on May 22. "He's shown that. He's shown a lot of leadership. . . . What's failed us and failed him is the FBI, the CIA, and others that have not furnished the requisite intelligence." He added wistfully, "I believe President Bush, if he had had information to act on, he would have acted on it."

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