I have one word for those who thought the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were going to conduct a thorough, no-holds-barred investigation of problems within the U.S. intelligence community that may have contributed to its failure to warn of, and prevent, September 11: Fuggedaboutit.
To be sure, there will be a formal inquiry, featuring some number of open hearings, plus probably large quantities of testimony taken in secret session. The Senate committee’s chairman -- Sen. Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida -- declared at a Capitol Hill press conference last Thursday: “We owe [it] to the 3,000 who died, their families and the rest of America...to ascertain why the intelligence community did not learn of the Sept. 11 attack in advance and identify what, if anything, might be done to better position the community to warn and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States.”
You would never know from this forthright pronouncement that Sen. Graham had steadfastly resisted conducting such an investigation. The truth of the matter is, however, that both he and his House counterpart -- Rep. Porter Goss, Republican of Florida and a former secret agent -- were as reluctant as CIA Director George Tenet, and the Bush Administration writ large, to see the intelligence community subjected to close scrutiny.
Until Thursday, the argument was that an investigation at this time would distract the Agency’s personnel from the war on terrorism. Then suddenly, on Valentine’s Day, everything changed. The Committee chairmen expressed their commitment to -- in Sen. Graham’s words, “Let the chips fall where they may, whether it’s individuals, institutions or processes.” For his part, Director Tenet announced that he welcomed the inquiry, saying “It’s important we have a record. It is a record of discipline, strategy, focus and action.”
What, it might reasonably be asked, prompted such an apparently complete reversal since it seems the demands on the U.S. intelligence community to ferret out and defeat terrorists are as great as ever? There appears to be only one explanation: The fix is in.
On Thursday, Sen. Graham and Rep. Goss disclosed that they had hired one L. Britt Snider to run their $2.6 million investigation. They lauded Mr. Snider’s extensive experience on Capitol Hill and in the CIA and spoke with confidence about his ability to conduct a “thorough” and “independent” inquiry. Given the actual nature of his associations in Congress and at the Agency, however, it is no more reasonable to expect Britt Snider to be thorough, let alone truly independent, than it would be if Enron’s general counsel had been tapped to run hearings into his company’s melt-down.
After all, Mr. Snider is George Tenet’s guy. When Tenet was staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee in the late 1980s -- during which period he forged close personal and professional ties with many of the legislators now charged with overseeing his conduct -- the future CIA Director made Snider the panel’s general counsel. Later, when Tenet was appointed the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), he asked Snider to be his “special advisor,” in which capacity the latter served for two years. Then, in 1999, Director Tenet persuaded President Clinton to give this hand-picked and reliable subordinate the role of in-house watchdog, the CIA’s Inspector General.
Now, it would be one thing if George Tenet had said from the get-go after September 11th that there were serious problems in the way his agency, and the Intelligence Community more broadly, had been doing business. If, for example, he had acknowledged that over the past decade such problems -- including an insistence on the political correctness of U.S. intelligence products, the diminished priority accorded to human intelligence and serious restraints on domestic surveillance of potentially subversive elements -- had contributed to the Nation’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks, and pledged his full cooperation to document, address and correct those problems, perhaps having the DCI’s proxy run a congressional investigation into these matters might have made sense. Perhaps.
One could at least argue that such a sweetheart arrangement would facilitate the promised cooperation between the Agency and the investigators. But under the actual circumstances -- where, incredibly, DCI Tenet denies that there was any failure -- can someone closely tied to the Director, someone who shares some measure of responsibility with him for whatever went wrong, possibly be the best choice to lead this important inquiry? If, as the Republican Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, put it “We should leave no stone unturned; we've got to turn them all up,” that job should not be entrusted to someone who was supposed to have done it long before now.
Unfortunately, this is not simply a question of a bad choice for a key staff position. Rather, it calls into question whether the Senate and House select committees on intelligence can conduct a truly thorough and independent investigation. In calling for a Warren Commission-style board to conduct this inquiry, Sen. Robert Torricelli correctly observed in Sunday’s Washington Post that: “Those committees have had continuing oversight responsibilities for the very intelligence agencies they would be investigating” and “would not provide the full and impartial investigation needed.”
The Nation desperately needs to learn -- and to apply urgently -- the lessons of September 11th. In the midst of President Clinton’s myriad scandals, William Bennett once famously asked, “Where’s the outrage?” Regrettably, the outrageousness, and the potential costs, of failing to
get to the bottom of the 9/11 intelligence failures demand an even greater outcry now.