Skip to content

Experience of 9/11 Panel, Hill Committees Shows Comity in Short Supply

If anything has become clear over the past few months in the dialogue about Sept. 11, 2001, it is the systemic, cultural, bureaucratic, organizational and individual failures in the intelligence process. What we should do about them will be the subject of intense debate over the coming months, in a way that will test our political system severely.

[IMGCAP(1)]This issue, of course, will be a central subject in the final report and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and has already been addressed by a joint Congressional panel, by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and most recently by Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, in concert with her Democratic colleagues on the committee.

First, let’s talk about the 9/11 Commission. As Ross Baker smartly wrote in the Washington Post’s Outlook section, the 9/11 Commission owes its existence to the inability — or lack of desire — in today’s Congress to undertake tough, searching, bipartisan oversight on any issue, including intelligence. The public image of the 9/11 Commission was set by its televised hearings featuring Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice, which on the surface seemed to reflect another failure of bipartisanship. The hearings were often tense, and displayed sharply different perspectives by Democrats and Republicans on the commission, not to mention sharply different perceptions of reality articulated by Clarke and Rice.

But any serious look at the commission and its work comes to a wholly different conclusion. This has been a remarkably unified exercise, and it is likely that the final recommendations will be unanimous or nearly so. The staff reports completed so far have been thorough and constructive. The untelevised bulk of the commission’s work has been, by all accounts, devoid of excessive partisanship and internal division. The focus of the commission is not to indict any individual for malfeasance or nonfeasance leading up to 9/11, but to undertake a relentlessly honest examination of how it happened and why, with the aim of finding ways to make sure that we do not get taken by surprise again, and that if there is another serious terrorist attack, that we are prepared better to deal with its aftermath.

That is not to say that the exercise has been without partisanship or partisans. The members of the commission are not eunuchs, monks or technocrats; they have been elected or appointed to public office as partisans. They maintain varying viewpoints, differing political goals and multiple worldviews. But they are all smart, decent, tough-minded patriots, sharing identical goals. And they have been led admirably by two of the most remarkable and admirable figures in American public life, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton. There is every reason to expect a first-rate final report.

What is most unfortunate here is the attempt to discredit the commission by trashing one panelist, Jamie Gorelick. The reason is clear, at least to me: An honest final report will offer stiff criticism of both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, only one of which is seeking re-election. The criticism of Gorelick is a pre-emptive attempt to soften or blur the criticism of Bush heading into the heart of the campaign season.

The criticism of Gorelick is frankly absurd. And its absurdity is made especially clear by the reaction to it from every Republican on the 9/11 Commission. Slade Gorton filleted his former colleague, Attorney General John Ashcroft, when Ashcroft unconscionably blindsided the commission with his last-minute declassification of the memo Gorelick had supervised as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and then distorted the record of its genesis and impact.

Gorton, John Lehman, Jim Thompson and Fred Fielding are not soft or foolish namby-pambies seduced by Gorelick, the co-chairs or a “gone native” approach. They are tough, smart conservatives who know the reality: Gorelick is an honest, tough-minded and experienced professional who is operating in an open and constructive fashion on the commission. All the commissioners have had experiences in the area of national security and terrorism, including actions (or votes) that may have shaped the environment in which terrorists and counter-terrorists operated. That is why they are on the commission. All have been open about their roles and actions. I have worked with Gorelick on continuity of government issues, and I am happy for America that she is on the commission. That the barrage directed at her has led to bomb and death threats is a nauseating fact of political life in contemporary America and ought to give some pause to those sitting with their talking points for the next wave of trash-talking.

On to a few observations about the intelligence process, a subject to which I plan to address in a future column. First: The last thing we need is an intelligence equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security — an entity that throws everything together and then spends years on the chaotic process of assimilating its constituent parts. Yet we do need ways to take 15 intelligence entities — each with their own culture, resources, viewpoints and histories of rivalry — and mesh their strengths and share their information.

On this front, the ideas of Harman and her colleagues are smart, balanced and constructive. They (and Scowcroft and others) would create a director of National Intelligence with a greater budget than the ill-fated initial Homeland Security czar had. They would also make the undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence simultaneously the deputy director of National Intelligence, thereby adding much-needed coordination between the Pentagon and intelligence units elsewhere. They also propose ways to improve coordination, to reduce “stovepiping” and to develop state-of-the-art analytical tools. There is no good reason why these patently nonideological ideas have come only from the Intelligence Committee’s Democrats.

Finally, it is clear that the Congressional intelligence committees need to undergo their own serious reforms, starting with the elimination of the wrong-headed and counterproductive term limits on membership, and with a serious expansion of professional staffs for members and the committees. None of these structural changes will bring miracles, but all will help. Let us hope that the bipartisanship that exists now on the 9/11 Commission, and that has existed in the past within the two Congressional Intelligence committees, can be extended — not snuffed out by the larger corrosiveness of contemporary politics.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Recent Stories

Are these streaks made to be broken?

Supreme Court airs concerns over Oregon city’s homelessness law

Supreme Court to decide if government can regulate ‘ghost guns’

Voters got first true 2024 week with Trump on trial, Biden on the trail

Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion and Trump

House passes $95.3B aid package for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan