I am writing this column on June 7th. As such, the material may appear dated by the time you read this column. If so, please forgive that transgression, but at least you know why it occurred.
I thought I would take a break from writing about the Special Session currently ongoing in Indianapolis. By the time the next column appears, I should be able to write about the outcome of the Session and its implications for all of us.
Instead, I thought I would weigh in on the Congressional investigations into the failure of our nation’s intelligence gathering agencies to detect the September 11th terrorist plot.
It is certainly clear from what we know today that a major overhaul needs to occur in both the FBI and the CIA. Those agencies are not functioning at the level we must expect them to function if our country is going to effectively deal with the new terrorist threat. These problems certainly did not occur overnight; instead, they are a hangover from the post Cold War world in which the old enemy, the Soviet Union, disappeared as a world power, leaving a vacuum in which the United States was left as the only superpower on the globe.
The reaction of our national leaders to the collapse of the Soviet Union took many forms, but one of the worst was allowing our intelligence agencies to languish and grow weak. Cutbacks, attacks on the intelligence culture by Congressional doves, and especially the disinterested leadership of Bill Clinton all contributed to the problems from which we are suffering today.
It has taken the revelation of several FBI internal letters and memos criticizing its own leadership’s handling of sensitive but vital information about the terrorist’s pre September 11th activities to bring the type of scrutiny we are now seeing in Washington. No doubt the publicizing of these letters and memos was made possible by an intentional leak to the press by frustrated members of the intelligence community. But if it leads to the type of reforms necessary to get these critical entities back into shape, it will have been worth it.
What is maddening is the typical Washington reaction to all of this: every Committee chairman in Congress wants to hold an investigation. What better way to get publicity? In the case of the Democratically controlled Senate, what better way to embarrass the President? Which leads me to my biggest peeve: the suggestion by several leading Democratic Senators that President Bush and his White House team somehow failed to properly react to pre-September 11th intelligence reports is a terrible injustice. The President didn’t cause a decade’s worth of erosion of the CIA and FBI. And he certainly had no opportunity, in the nine short months he had been in office as of September 11, to analyze the problems in these agencies and somehow, miraculously, clean up the mess.
The chief offending Senators were also, not surprisingly, two of the leading candidates to run for President in 2004: Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. Each suggested that somehow, the President had failed the nation, and they were going to get to the bottom of it. If there was ever a time to test the leadership and statesmanship of these two individuals, it was in a situation like this, and in my opinion, they both failed miserably. Not surprisingly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California (D), who took a more reasonable and balanced approach to dealing with the revelations of the FBI memos, has now become a leading candidate for a Presidential run in 2004. Why? Because she handled herself as a leader, instead of a blindly ambitious politician. Feinstein (unlike Lieberman or Clinton) sits on the Senate Intelligence committee, which thankfully has taken control of the Senate investigations. The members of the Congressional intelligence committees are sworn to secrecy, and are under threat of absolute expulsion from the committee if they talk to the media about the military or national secrets to which they are exposed.
As a result, it appears that Senator Lieberman’s attempts to hog the spotlight by running his own committee investigations may be thwarted. One can only hope so; the last thing we need in the attempt to understand what went wrong with these agencies is to expose national secrets just so Senator Lieberman can attempt to embarrass the President and help his own aspirations. In case any one forgot, we are currently engaged in a major war on terrorism. Perhaps some of these so called leaders in Washington can keep their eye on that ball while we get things sorted out with regard to our intelligence agency shortcomings.
Make no mistake, however; just because President Bush was not at fault for the intelligence failures of September 11th does not mean that he is not responsible for fixing the problem. Like it or not, that will be his charge, along with successfully fighting the war on terrorism. I thought he took a good first step overall by proposing to combine the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with US Customs and the US Border Patrol. Allowing these agencies to talk with each other can only enhance our homeland security.
But the President will have to do more; he will have to embrace the need to cut the bureaucratic fat out of both the FBI and the CIA in order to allow a more steam lined flow of intelligence information. He will also probably have to figure out how to create a third entity that sits above the FBI and CIA, and receives and reviews intelligence information which emanates from critical sectors. One of the problems that has plagued the intelligence gathering abilities of our country is that these two agencies are rivals, and often don’t communicate with each other. The best way to handle that is to cut the fat out of these agencies, and create a third, lean entity that does nothing but sort through intelligence information in an effort to connect the dots.
Many of the ideas suggested above have come from intelligence experts, such as former heads of the CIA, as well as a variety of other former leaders or employees of these agencies. I’m not suggesting that these ideas are in any way exclusive, nor am I suggesting that the President isn’t well on his way to implementing these changes. However, it will be necessary for the President to reassure the American people that these reforms are actually occurring. And the American people, as well as Congress, will have to be patient while the President goes about cleaning up the problem.
In the meantime, I hope that the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate find common ground in the notion that we need to work together to fix the problems with our intelligence agencies without resorting to the usual Washington blame game and finger pointing. Our nation’s problems demand that type of leadership, and the American people should stand for nothing less.