Dangerous Delay

Posted: Jul 23, 2004 12:00 AM

We?re about to ?enjoy? a quadrennial tradition. Yes, it?s political convention season.

These gatherings are all political theater, of course. The candidates were selected months ago, and the speeches they?ll give will be approved by focus groups and filled with poll-tested buzzwords. But, for the most part, that?s all right. After all, everyone recognizes the conventions for what they are: Harmless displays of politics.

Still, that?s not to say that all politics are harmless. In fact, we?re seeing an acceleration of partisan politics in Washington -- and it?s a trend that may endanger us.

Because of partisan politics, the Bush administration hasn?t nominated a successor to George Tenet, who stepped down recently as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. We all know we need to shake up the CIA and generate better intelligence, as the final report of the 9/11 commission makes clear. We were plagued by bad intelligence and, as the commission put it, a ?lack of imagination? before 9/11 and in the run-up to the War in Iraq.

So we need a strong, competent CIA director. And we need one quickly. Tenet?s resignation gives us the perfect chance to appoint that person.

The White House apparently planned to nominate Rep. Porter Goss, a Florida Republican, for the position. Goss seems well qualified. A former CIA officer, he chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He?s frequently criticized the CIA, and since 9/11 he?s worked to improve American intelligence-gathering techniques. Plus, as a lawmaker, he could be expected to cruise through the nomination process.

Not so fast. According to The Washington Post, the administration declined to nominate Goss because senior Democrats consider him too partisan. In fact, the newspaper reports, the president may wait until after the election to name Tenet?s successor, since ?Democrats threatened to turn a confirmation hearing for Goss or any other nominee they consider too partisan into a review of the Bush administration?s prewar case for ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.?

So reforming the CIA may have to wait until November, at the earliest. And if President Bush loses, we?d have to wait until John Kerry takes office to get a new CIA director. That could mean January.

Imagine that. Up to six months, or more, without an intelligence chief, even as our country remains at risk of a terrorist attack.

Imagine that another terrorist attack occurs before a new director is named. In that case, we can expect lawmakers to howl about why we were unprepared. They?d surely call for hearings and demand that heads roll. They?d conveniently ignore the fact that their own partisan gamesmanship contributed to keeping us unprepared.

Partisan politics also have hijacked the judicial nomination process. A handful of senators are blocking the will of the majority by refusing to allow a full Senate vote on numerous lower-court nominees, some of whom have been waiting years for a vote. As former Attorney General Ed Meese recently observed, ?Never before in history has the Senate used a filibuster to block the confirmation of a nominee that enjoyed majority support.?

Our courts are undermanned, partly because so many qualified people have been waiting so long for a yes or no vote. That probably doesn?t matter to most people. After all, relatively few of us need to go to federal court. However, we all depend on the CIA to deliver quality intelligence. When it fails, we?re all at risk.

It used to be said, ?politics stops at the water?s edge.? We must work together to make that statement true again. So this summer, even as Republicans and Democrats celebrate our political differences at their conventions, let?s remember we?re all Americans. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if we won?t hang together, we might all end up hanging separately.