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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.”
“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