Shelby isn't known for making news. The Alabama Republican senator's profile tends to be as plain as his burly Southern-sheriff looks, deadpan courtliness, and ho-hum sound bites. But with a political battle raging over the investigation into 9/11, Shelby, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has suddenly become one of the most quote-worthy men on Capitol Hill. He has railed against the FBI, saying the agency was "asleep or inept or both," and that it "failed the American people." He accuses the Bush administration of not cooperating with a congressional investigation and hints that he could support the sort of blue-ribbon 9/11 commission that Daschle badly wants--and that the White House fervently opposes. He has called repeatedly for the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet, whom the Bush administration strongly defends. Throw in Shelby's support for the Democrats' effort to force a recalcitrant Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to testify before Congress (another issue that makes Dick Cheney's lip curl), and you can see why the Los Angeles Times, bestowing the media's highest linguistic honor, referred to Shelby this week as a "maverick."
Predictably, congressional Democrats are cheering Shelby on. "Clearly it's helpful to us to have Republicans in addition to John McCain arguing for a more independent role for the legislative branch," notes one party official. A Democratic operative recently sent reporters an "in case you missed it" e-mail with quotes from a Shelby interview with The Washington Times, in which he argued that "Democrats have an obligation to ask questions about who knew what." And predictably, this has not endeared Shelby to the Bush administration. At a May 17 press briefing, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, in an effort to remind people why the administration didn't issue pre-9/11 terror warnings, included Shelby in an otherwise all-Democratic list of senators who had complained about false terror alerts last fall.
It's a strange turn of events. Even if Shelby sounds for the moment like a junior McCain, he's an unlikely thorn in George W. Bush's side, given that he abandoned the Democratic Party in its hour of need after the 1994 elections. Unlike McCain, he has shown no broader sympathy for his colleagues across the aisle--generally conducting himself as an orthodox conservative and a fierce partisan. In fact, Shelby isn't really waging a battle against the White House at all. He's waging an entirely different, and highly personal, battle against an intelligence establishment that over the years has wound up on the wrong side of his long-grinding axes. President Bush just happens to be in the way.
For Richard Shelby, political grudges are nothing new. Consider the story of his 1994 party switch. After eight years in the House and eight more in the Senate as a surly conservative Democrat, Shelby reached his breaking point under Bill Clinton. He described Clinton's economic plan as "the taxman cometh" and his health care plan as "ill-conceived, unworkable, and unwanted by the American people." But by most accounts, it wasn't ideology that pushed him over the brink; it was Shelby's fury over White House snubs. In 1993 Clinton operatives saw to it that a lucrative nasa project was moved from Alabama to Texas. And when Clinton honored the University of Alabama's ncaa champion football team at a White House ceremony in March of that year, Shelby was given just one ticket; his Democratic Alabama colleague, Howell Heflin, got 15. Shelby got even by kicking the Democrats when they were down--switching parties on November 9, the day after the 1994 elections gave Republicans control of Congress.
As an inducement to join the GOP, Shelby was allowed to keep his seniority, and by 1997 he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Democrats and editorialists quickly accused him of turning the staid, courtly panel into a staging ground for partisan warfare. Shortly after taking over the committee, Shelby tormented Clinton's nominee for CIA director, Anthony Lake, subjecting him to an ideological grilling that questioned his "integrity" and included questions about Clinton fund-raising and Lake's opinion of Alger Hiss. Several prominent Republicans, including McCain and former CIA chief Robert Gates, defended Lake. But Lake wound up withdrawing his nomination, bitterly declaring that "Washington has gone haywire." Given Shelby's penchant for grudge-bearing, it might have been just as well. When the Los Angeles Times asked GOP Senator Arlen Specter during the hearings whether Lake and Shelby might find a way to work together if Clinton's nominee got the job, Specter told the reporter to write that he had laughed out loud.
But Shelby didn't bare his fangs when Clinton offered up Tenet, a former Intelligence Committee aide, in Lake's place. In fact, Shelby praised Tenet as "a man of integrity and professionalism." The relationship soon soured, however. Publicly, Shelby fumed at Tenet's 1998 refusal to his cooperate with his committee's investigation of the transfer of U.S. missile technology to China. Soon afterward he railed against what he called Tenet's lenient response to the revelation that his predecessor at the CIA, John Deutch, had downloaded top secret information onto his personal laptop computer--suggesting Tenet was engaged in a "cover-up." But as with his party switch, personal slights seem to have played a role as well. The senator was reportedly infuriated when, during a 1999 ceremony to rename CIA headquarters, he was seated in a location he deemed insultingly nonprominent--and he blamed Tenet for the affront. "This is a personality thing," says a Democrat familiar with the feud.
Shelby has long been just as suspicious of the FBI. He was particularly critical of the Bureau's handling of the Wen Ho Lee espionage case, suggesting that the FBI was treating Lee--who, it now appears, did little wrong--too leniently. He has repeatedly accused the FBI of stonewalling his committee and was aghast at the agency's disclosure of files related to the Timothy McVeigh case days before McVeigh's execution.
And so when 9/11 hit, Shelby attacked the FBI and the CIA almost immediately, telling John McLaughlin last October, "It's time to have a change of leadership at the top" of the CIA. Representative Porter Goss, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called his comments "inappropriate." Shelby responded by saying that Goss, an ex-CIA agent, was "close to a lot of people over [at the CIA] ... I don't think we should be too close to anybody we have oversight of, because you can't do your job." Continuing tension between the two men is said to be delaying the House and Senate Intelligence Committees' joint investigation into 9/11 to this day.
In other words, Shelby may be making the same points as many Democrats, but he's making them for entirely different reasons. Even if he is often driven by personal animus, a lot of what the Alabama senator is saying makes sense: The CIA and the FBI haven't been adequately held accountable for their failings. For the Bush administration, however, the real problem isn't Shelby's words themselves; it's that the press takes his words to mean that even Republicans are growing frustrated with the administration's handling of the 9/11 controversy. But the truth is that Richard Shelby has been frustrated for a long time; it just happens that now people are finally listening.