WASHINGTON -- Congressional investigation of the intelligence community's culpability for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will begin early in 2002, but the lawmakers may not be ready for what they provoke. The CIA and its director, George Tenet, will not meekly agree to be scapegoats.
Hardworking operatives in the CIA's counter-terrorism center do not welcome a major diversion of their time and effort. Nor does Tenet, the lone Clinton holdover on President Bush's national security team. He likely will lay it on the line that the CIA is not responsible for the nation's great intelligence failure for which other federal agencies, including the FBI, are properly subject to criticism.
The CIA gets high marks from the often-critical old boy network of intelligence agents for being prepared for Afghanistan. If its agents on the ground have been arrogant with indigenous Afghan fighters, the fact is that they were on the ground immediately. The CIA's para-military forces that were abandoned in the post-Vietnam War hysteria had been quietly rebuilt. Tenet will not apologize to his interrogators but will take pride.
Immediately following Sept. 11, Sen. Robert Torricelli and other lawmakers called for a commission, embracing all branches of the federal government, on the model of the Pearl Harbor investigation half a century ago. Bush privately asked Congress to wait, promising his own inquiry. His failure to do so has revived congressional interest.
Before a commission is ready, the Senate Intelligence Committee will be in action. Sen. Bob Graham, its Democratic chairman, and Sen. Richard Shelby, its ranking Republican, plan for hearings -- some closed, some open -- as early as February (with the House Intelligence Committee probably joining the inquiry). Shelby has made no secret of his belief that the CIA is at fault and Tenet should be replaced as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).
Indeed, the Bush transition team's consensus a year ago deemed the CIA a disaster area, with Tenet sure to be tossed. But George H.W. Bush, himself a former DCI, had been briefed by Tenet as a former president and was impressed. Bush's son soon shared that opinion, becoming Tenet's strongest backer. The president and the DCI meet every morning in Washington to survey the world.
This high valuation by the Bushes is echoed inside the CIA. The mood at the agency's sprawling campus at Langley, Va., was dreary during the disastrous 19-month tenure of Tenet's predecessor, former MIT chemistry professor John Deutch. Revived by Tenet since then, the agency's morale has been the highest in decades.
Tenet, only 44 on July 11, 1997, when Clinton named him the youngest DCI ever, is a career government official but not a veteran CIA hand who ran spies or controlled guerrillas. He connected with the agency's tradition by taking the portrait of Richard Helms out of the hallway of former DCIs at headquarters and putting it in his private office. Helms headed the agency during seven turbulent years ending in 1973, and Tenet considers him a much-abused hero -- a view widely shared at Langley.
The agency's old boys see Tenet as a bureaucratic politician who has revived the agency but fallen short in building relations with the public and, to a lesser extent, with Congress. In his limited news media exposure, the public Tenet is a gray bureaucrat. The private Tenet is feisty and profane.
The feisty (though not profane) Tenet may be on display in the forthcoming congressional investigation. He predictably will not accept the fate of Adm. Husband Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter Short, who soon after the Pearl Harbor attack were designated as scapegoats in a rigged inquiry by a commission.
Any investigation that does not explore the failings of the FBI, the Border Patrol and the Federal Aviation Administration will fall short. Even today, with a war declared against terrorism, between 300,000 and 400,000 foreign nationals are "out of status" (their whereabouts and identity unknown to the U.S. government). FBI Director Robert Mueller is trying to modernize his famous agency, which on Sept. 11 had no computer system to centralize intelligence and had to ask the CIA for help. In that climate, George Tenet plans to stand up to his congressional inquisitors.