Can Chris Cox rescue the CIA?

Ask Wen Ho Lee

Photo by Jack GouldCiting personal reasons—like maybe his agency's failure to expose and stop the Sept. 11 attacks—CIA Director George Tenet resigned on July 11, seven years to the day that he assumed the job. Conservative pundits, including editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal, think they've found his replacement: Newport Beach's eight-term Republican Congressman Chris Cox.

Those who've lived in Orange County for a while know that Cox is perhaps OC's brightest member of the House of Representatives (and, yes, this really is meant as a compliment). He has influential friends in the conservative media, and these friends regularly promote him for positions of consequence. Cox, they said, was the Republican who'd be able to take on and defeat Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer when she first ran for re-election in 1998. That same year, following the demise of GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, followed quickly by Speaker Bob Livingston, Cox was heralded as an obvious replacement. Cox was then promoted as a viable vice presidential nominee for George W. Bush 2000, someone who might help Bush win California. Most recently Cox was advanced as an inspired candidate, with a remarkable judicial temperament, for appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senator Cox. Speaker Cox. Vice President Cox. Judge Cox. Given that track record—lots of foreplay, little hot action—chances are Cox (a supporter of term limits) will serve his ninth term in Congress come January 2005.

But the idea of a congressman—of any elected official—serving as appointed director of CIA? That idea is a good one. Really. For more than 25 years (beginning with the Church and Pike committees in the Senate and House respectively), the CIA has suffered a considerable loss of public support—for what it did (e.g., the Phoenix program in Vietnam and domestic spying of anti-war activists), for what it tried to do (e.g., attempted assassinations of various foreign leaders), or what it didn't do (e.g., predicting the demise of the Soviet economy, adequately protecting the nation against terrorist assault, or counting WMDs in Iraq). Most former directors of the CIA have not been sensitive to the value of public support for the intelligence community; many (I'm thinking of Richard Helms and William Colby) were outwardly disdainful of it. With few exceptions—the most important being George H.W. Bush, who served as director from January 1976 to January 1977—directors tended to lack any significant electoral experience. Yet that's precisely where individuals learn the importance of attending to public opinion in the name of democratic accountability.

Post-Sept. 11, it's reasonable to bet someone with electoral experience could restore public faith in the agency. That could be Chris Cox. But it might just as easily be Florida Republican Porter Goss (House Intelligence Committee Chair and CIA case officer in the 1960s), deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), retired Admiral William Studeman, or former federal prosecutor and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Next to these guys, Cox is a lightweight. Yes, we all know (because he tells us every two years) the story about how Chris Cox and his dad started a company to translate Pravda, the former Soviet Union's official daily newspaper, into English. Cox's official website claims "the translations were used by the CIA, the FBI, U.S. military intelligence, and colleges and universities in 26 countries throughout the world." Well, kudos. But I'm not sure this qualifies as sufficient experience to become the nation's spy-in-chief. Most of Cox's experience in the House has been in the area of domestic policy. And he obviously takes great pride in his self-styled characterization as a "leading proponent of freedom and economic prosperity by championing lower taxes, free enterprise and limited government." Yawn: these are hollow phrases when you represent one of the safest Republican congressional districts in the state.

The one time Cox got really close to issues involving intelligence gathering, he flunked—and an innocent American nearly paid with his life. As chairman in the late 1990s of a special House committee looking into allegations that the Clinton administration gave sensitive satellite information to China in exchange for campaign contributions, Cox unleashed a witch-hunt against the Los Alamos Labs and Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a 60-year-old Chinese-American scientist who had worked at Los Alamos for 19 years. Lee's good name and reputation were dragged through the mud—he was alleged to have passed nuclear-warhead secrets to China—as the result of information leaked to the press from Cox's committee. For this, Lee was fired and imprisoned without bail.

Cox seemed more interested in charging the Clinton administration with laxity in dealing with China than he did in discovering the truth about lost nuclear secrets. In orchestrating the Chinese spy scandal, Cox claimed that secrets "stolen" from Los Alamos were "the crown jewels of our nuclear arsenal." The truth, it turned out, eluded Cox, but not the courts. There was no factual basis for the allegations against Lee; in an ironic twist, it turned out that the alleged theft of missile secrets took place, not during the Clinton administration, but during the administration of Cox's former employer: President Ronald Reagan.

It's no surprise that Cox mentions neither Los Alamos nor Lee in his extensive online, self-promoting biography of legislative and life accomplishments.

None of this disqualifies Cox, of course; relative ineptitude and inexperience are par for the Bush White House: like President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, among many others, Chris Cox never served in the military. A lack of military experience didn't stop the Bushies from preemptively invading a sovereign nation and re-defining more than 200 years of U.S. foreign policy. Why should a lack of experience in the world of espionage prevent Cox from serving as director of the world's most powerful spy organization?

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