Spook reform

Posted: Aug 04, 2004 12:00 AM

rm On Friday, July 23, Sen. John Kerry took the first significant substantive act of what would be a Kerry presidency: It was a cynical, possibly dangerous, political stunt. Within an hour or two of the 9-11 Commission releasing its final report, Mr. Kerry called for the immediate, comprehensive passage of the report's intelligence reorganization findings -- although he stated that he had had his initial briefing on that important report only that morning.
The report was 567 pages long -- so obviously neither he, nor his expert advisers, had had a chance to even read, let alone inwardly digest and consider, the full report. The report envisions by far the most fundamental re-ordering of our intelligence process since the 1947 act that created the CIA. If he should get elected president in November, he would be stuck with these historic changes -- since he has called for their immediate passage before the election.

 Given the centrality of intelligence -- as never before in warfare -- to the war on terror in which he is seeking to lead our country, one would have hoped that he would take such a disrupting reform deadly seriously. But he chose to use the report -- which may or may not be the basis for effective reform -- as simply one more political arrow to shoot into the air.

 Such serious men as Democratic Sen. Carl Levin (ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee) and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees member), among other experts, have raised doubts about some of the recommendations and have urged careful deliberation prior to passage. Sen. Levin strongly opposes President Bush, and Senator Hagel has repeatedly criticized the president -- but on this momentous matter they are statesmen before they are politicians. Regretfully, Sen Kerry has shown himself to be a politician first.

 As Sen. Hagel wrote this week in the Washington Post: "if we allow the current national consensus for intelligence reform to become a tool in the partisan rancor of presidential politics, we risk doing enormous damage to our intelligence community. We must not allow false urgency dictated by the political calendar to overtake the need for serious reform ..."

 While both the speaker of the House and the president received the report respectfully (the president went to his ranch with his experts to read the report in full that weekend), John Kerry frivolously endorsed the report -- unread -- and went on the political attack. This abdication of responsibility tells us much about how unseriously Sen. Kerry takes his martial responsibilities as commander-in-chief.

 There was a fair criticism to make of President Bush on the matter of intelligence. He should have gone about the business of intelligence reform sooner and more aggressively. Sen. Kerry legitimately has made that charge, and had he left it at that, his conduct in the matter could not be gainsaid.

 But insisting on legislative passage now, during the full madness of the election season, he has not only shown himself indifferent to wise reform, but has, in fact, increased the risk to the country.

 As an experienced Washington player, Sen Kerry knows that to call for the complete reorganization of a vast bureaucracy currently residing throughout the government (Defense, State, Energy, Treasury, CIA, NSA, FBI, DEA, Secret Service, BATF, etc.) is to assure riling the employees and managers of the entire apparatus. The last thing we need between now and the election is to re-inflame battles over defense of turf and career paths for all the men and women on the frontline of our intelligence services.

 As we all know, Federal, state and local governments are on high alert during the elections season, and not only because of the Madrid bombing precedent and the recently revealed financial targets in New York and Washington.

 Also, intelligence services throughout the West take very seriously bin Laden's taped statement (reported April 26) warning that the coalition partners had until August 15 to withdraw from Iraq or face the consequences. So from mid-August on, we need to be on very high alert. Reportedly, not only Al Qaeda, but assorted other jihadists are said to be planning a wave of terrorist attacks after that deadline in Europe and here.

 What a perfectly dreadful moment to throw our entire intelligence apparatus into political convulsions that are inevitably and predictably attendant on a congressional debate over how to re-arrange power and money throughout our intelligence services. John Kerry knew what he was doing -- and he didn't give a damn.

 Both candidates are more or less entitled to use harsh language to describe the other chap's shortcomings -- that goes with the territory. But to consciously force legislative action that requires rational policymaking at our least rational legislative moment, and to risk actually distracting (and thereby degrading the effectiveness of) our frontline defenses against possibly imminent terrorist attack is an act of political selfishness that is unforgivable. We can only hope that the event will not occur that would require forgiveness for John Kerry.