With Senate and House intelligence committees finally demanding answers for pre-Sept. 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-Qaida 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 naiveté, 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. 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 cold war CIA officer. The staff director of the Senate panel recently left to work as a top aide to Tenet, who himself had been a committee aide. And the committees, now operating jointly, had to get rid of their investigations director, Britt Snider, onetime 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 chairman 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 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 George W. 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 Sept. 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. 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. "[Bush] 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. "What's failed us and failed him is the FBI, the CIA and others that have not furnished the requisite intelligence."
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.