Ashcroft to Mueller to Anybody Else

Double-Playing 9-11 Errors

"There has been an insularity among the FBI," former House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, another Republican, told the Chicago Tribune. "You begin to wonder [about] this premier agency. . . . You begin to believe that their sterling reputation was a hangover from J. Edgar Hoover rather than anything recently accomplished."

Aside from Daschle and Intelligence Committee member Dick Durbin, the Democrats were mostly covering ass. "The president knew what?" asked Senator Hillary Clinton, whose husband presided over the precipitous decline of both intelligence agencies. "My constituents would like to know the answer to that and many other questions." Listen to perennial presidential hopeful and longtime House speaker wannabe Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt: "Was there a failure of intelligence? Did the right officials not act on the intelligence in the proper way?" Golly-gee, Dick, that's a tough one.

You might expect a little heat from North Carolina senator John Edwards, a presidential aspirant and Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee. But asked whether Mueller's job is on the line, Edwards's press aide Mike Briggs offered this take on his boss's tepid views. "Based on what he knows now, he wants to know more about what level of information Mueller had when he made statements that now appear to be not the whole truth. There's a possibility there's some answer Mueller could provide that he wasn't given straight information from people at the FBI."

And then there's the ticklish position of a Houston Democrat criticizing his fellow Texan. "On its face, it comes across as startling," said Representative Ken Bentsen, of allegations the White House could have done more. "But when you step back, you have to give the administration some benefit of the doubt."

Former House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, the Detroit Democrat, has been pounding away at Ashcroft for his "power grab" gutting of civil rights. Conyers has a frank and kindred spirit in New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey. "I don't think Ashcroft should be attorney general," said Representative Hinchey. He "has shown already that he's not inclined to closely guard the liberties of the American people. . . . Almost anyone under the present set of circumstances could be considered a potential terrorist and therefore subject to unrestricted surveillance and interrogation."

If there is a smoking gun on Ashcroft, though, it is likely to be found in the minority office of the House Appropriations Committee, where ranking Democratic congressman David Obey has been reaming him for curbing the FBI's terrorism work. Citing a Newsweek article about the difference between the priorities of former FBI director Louis Freeh and those of the AG, Obey reeled off a list of Ashcroft's stated aims that now seem nostalgic—items like fighting violent crime and dealing with illegal drugs.

Ashcroft "declined to indicate that combating terrorism was one of his top priorities," Obey told the House Appropriations Committee. "I am also frankly unhappy about the fact that the attorney general apparently was willing to charter personal planes for himself at the same time that notices were not being given to the general public that there were security reasons that would lead people to be concerned about flying commercial." Obey added, "I think all of this demonstrates a certain lack of judgment at the Department of Justice that in essence got in the way of the FBI's trying to get a tighter focus on terrorism."

With 12 members of the spy committees set to leave when the congressional session ends in October, the panels are in no position to impose a tighter focus now. Those looking for a serious analysis of the 9-11 fiasco might pin their hopes instead on the Senate Judiciary hearings, set to begin this week under the gavel of Vermont's Patrick Leahy. Or you can wait for Daschle and his mythical independent review. Either way, the dream of a better intelligence system limps on.

Additional reporting: Gabrielle Jackson and Joshua Hersh

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