CIA: Avoiding Reform

A joint Senate and House select committee is planning an investigation not just into possible lapses by the CIA and other government intelligence agencies immediately prior to September 11, but into the "intelligence community's" response to terrorism over the past 16 years. While the investigation might unearth a few interesting tidbits, it is unlikely to be as bold or far-reaching as is warranted by the magnitude of the U.S. intelligence failure. And it is even less likely to be the thoroughgoing re-examination of the real intelligence needs – of the United States in the post-Cold War era that many Americans would welcome. That's too bad. The terrorist attack represented a huge intelligence failure by the U.S. government, one that should have more Americans – and the supposed watchdogs in Congress and other branches of the government – asking lots of pointed questions about just what they're doing with all the tax money they spend. What we're more likely to get is a polite inquiry conducted by intelligence insiders with a vested interest in not rocking too many boats. Of course, trying to determine the intelligence needs of a country without a real debate, with all possible options on the table, over what the foreign policy of the United States should be, is putting that cart before the horse. Since the collapse of communism, however, most people with an interest in foreign policy have studiously avoided addressing fundamental questions about policy that might undermine some of the ill-defined assumptions that now underlie foreign policy. So we have drifted from engagement to engagement, and now into a war, without anything resembling a clear picture of that U.S. objectives in the world should be – let alone what the concrete objectives (as opposed to abstract concepts like "defeating evil") of a war on terrorism should be. A COMMITTEE OF LACKEYS According to the Washington Post, this will be the first time House and Senate intelligence committees headed by members of different political parties have combined to do an investigation. Senate leaders are said to have been a bit apprehensive about the idea, since they wouldn't have complete control of the committee. The best evidence, however, is that the new joint committee will not be in business to embarrass anybody. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss is a Florida Republican, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham is a Florida Democrat. Both consulted with the ranking members of the opposite party before hammering together a deal. California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the ranking House committee member appears to be the only potential fly in the prescribed "it was a tragic failure, it's not our fault, give us more money" ointment. She is on record supporting a broader commission to study September 11, and has made it clear that her acquiescence in the joint committee idea doesn't rule out the idea of a broader, perhaps more independent commission. But those who are on the intelligence committees in both houses of Congress are generally loyal friends of the "community" who have become accustomed to confidential briefings and have been tested to see to it that they don't leak secret material – at least not too promiscuously. It's not quite accurate to call all of them lapdogs – Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has been critical of George Tenet, the current CIA director. But they are by and large all too susceptible to the argument that there's a war on, the intelligence community has lots to do, and now is not the time to be scratching at scabs from the past. THE FIX IS IN? Last Thursday Sen. Graham announced that they had hired someone to run their investigation, and all of a sudden most objections and reservations about the investigation melted away. According to a fax sent out a couple of days ago by the Center for Security Project – Frank Gaffney's superhawk policy and lobbying outfit – "it is no more reasonable to expect Britt Snider to be thorough, let alone independent, than it would be if Enron's general counsel had been tapped to run hearings into his company's melt-down." Who is L. Britt Snider and why do the hawks think he won't conduct a no-holds-barred investigation? Here's how the CSP puts it: "Mr. Snider is George Tenet's guy. When Tenet was staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee in the late 1980s – during which period he forged close personal and professional ties with many of the legislators now charged with overseeing his conduct – the future CIA Director made Snider the panel's general counsel. Later, when Tenet was appointed the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), he asked Snider to be his 'special advisor,' in which capacity the latter served for two years. Then, in 1999, Director Tenet persuaded President Clinton to give this hand-picked and reliable subordinate the role of in-house watchdog, the CIA's Inspector General." So the investigation – at least the investigation conducted by the House-Senate joint committee – will be run by an insider, one of the boys. And not just one of the boys, but a special favorite of CIA Director George Tenet. Some of the Senate members might get unruly in the next few months – the staff is expected to investigate and gather material for the next two months, whereupon hearings that could last until July are expected – but the staff director, who will have effective control over the scope and nature of the investigation, will be a reliable from Mr. Tenet's perspective. DENIAL, DENIAL All this might not be so bad if CIA Director George Tenet had ever acknowledged, as a number of current and retired intelligence officials have, that the September 11 attacks revealed serious problems with the way his agency and other intelligence agencies have gone about their business over the last decade. There have certainly been plenty of gaps to lament, and a surprising number of people willing to lament them. But Tenet has generally apologized without content, claiming that it would have been simply impossible to detect or prevent the September 11 attacks and overall the CIA was doing a superb job. That's almost laughable about an agency that since the collapse of the Soviet empire has lurched from one temporary task to another – thinking about economic espionage here, talking about tracking former Soviet nukes and generally flailing – seeking to find a role that would justify its continued expensive existence in the post-Cold War world. It might have focused on terrorism but didn't. You don't have to believe, as I do, that we would be better off dismantling the CIA as an institution, dumping the deadwood, and starting over from scratch, with a more clearly defined mission and sense of mission, to believe that significant reform is desirable in America's vaunted "intelligence community." The current investigation is more likely to resemble a friendly whitewash – with some mistakes admitted and many more covered up – than the kind of thoroughgoing no-holds-barred bottom-up investigation this country deserves in the wake of such a calamity. Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, in calling for a Warren Commission-like investigative effort – which might or might not be all that effective – has pointed out another obvious fact. The House and Senate committees that will be conducting this joint investigation are the very committees, with most of the same members, that have had oversight responsibility for the intelligence community for decades. They might well be part of the problem. At any rate, Sen. Torricelli is probably right that this committee "would not provide the full and impartial investigation needed."

Alan Bock

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