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Fail Safe

TRB From Washington

Republicans generally think of themselves as apostles of tough love. Ask them about welfare mothers, juvenile delinquents, or failing schools, and they'll tell you that without high expectations and stern punishments, compassion usually does more harm than good. During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush vowed to usher in a "responsibility era."

That ethos is particularly lacking, most Republicans believe, in government bureaucracies, which, sheltered from the discipline of the market, become insular, self-perpetuating bastions of mediocrity. In recent years the most common GOP response to government bureaucracies that fail to successfully educate children, deliver the mail, or operate railroads has been some version of "blow them up." All of which might lead you to believe that faced with the insular, self- perpetuating government bureaucracy that failed to protect the United States from Al Qaeda on September 11--the CIA--the Bush administration would have come down like a ton of bricks. If you believed that, however, you were wrong. Within days of 9/11, prominent senators were pushing for CIA Director George Tenet to resign. As Alabama's Richard Shelby put it one week after the attacks, "I always was taught that when you're in charge of something and have massive failure, you pay the price." But the Bush administration showed almost immediately that it wasn't interested in making Tenet pay any price at all. On September 26 the president journeyed to Langley to announce: "I've got a lot of confidence in him, and I've got a lot of confidence in the CIA. And so should America." Vice President Dick Cheney added, "It would be a tragedy if somehow we were to go back now in the search for scapegoats and say that George Tenet or any other official ought to be eliminated at this point." That, it should be said, was a defensible position. Quick firings get a bureaucracy's attention, but they can punish the innocent and spare the guilty. The alternative was an independent, public investigation aimed at a fairer and more thorough apportioning of blame. And, in late September, the House Intelligence Committee called for just that--a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the "preparedness and performance" of the CIA and its related agencies. That investigation, the committee hoped, would produce "a cultural revolution within the intelligence community as well as significant structural changes."

But the Bush administration didn't support that either. And, just days later, congressional Republican leaders emasculated the committee's proposal, stripping the proposed commission of its right to issue subpoenas and grant immunity, and shifting its mandate from what went wrong. The commission, said Porter Goss, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would "focus on the future" and "get away from the blame game." In November, with the administration's support, congressional leaders put off all investigations until 2002. Let's try, once again, to be charitable. In October and November, America's war in Afghanistan was in full swing--and the CIA was playing a critical role. So maybe it made sense to wait until things calmed down. Except that on January 29, after things had calmed down, the White House informed congressional leaders that it didn't want a blue-ribbon commission at all. The administration would cooperate only with inquiries by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees themselves. According to Newsweek, Cheney warned Tom Daschle that if the Senate pushed ahead with additional hearings, the White House might accuse him of interfering with the war effort and refuse to show up. Under pressure, Congress this week agreed to limit its investigation to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, working jointly. What's wrong with limiting the inquiry to the Intelligence Committees? First, they do most of their work behind closed doors. Second, much of what they do behind closed doors is go soft on the Intelligence Agencies. Goss worked at the CIA for ten years, and many of his aides also hail from various intelligence services. Not surprisingly, he has already declared that September 11 was "not a failure of intelligence," and Goss called Tenet "a very competent and able director." The upcoming hearings, Goss announced last week, will not be "a who- shall-we-hang type of investigation." As former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht (writing under the pseudonym Edward Shirley) explained in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1998, "the oversight committees have become more often Langley's sympathetic partners than its demanding judges."

How would a commission of "demanding judges" apportion blame for September 11? No one knows. Tenet, who has won kudos for improving Agency morale and has spoken forcefully about the bin Laden threat in recent years, might come out fine. On the other hand, a tough, independent investigation would surely call someone to account for the deterioration of the CIA's human intelligence capacity since the end of the cold war. As Gerecht recounts, "Not a single Iran- desk chief during the eight years that I worked on Iran could speak or read Persian. Not a single Near East Division chief knew Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, and only one could get along even in French." Investigators might also bring to public attention the extraordinary recent revelation that as little as 7 percent of the data gathered by America's ultra-expensive satellites is ever analyzed. And, while we don't know what good might come of a serious investigation, we know the harm that comes from the lack of one.

As far as the CIA press office knows, no one at the Agency has resigned or been fired as a result of September 11. An informal CIA review into the World Trade Center attacks has found, according to The Baltimore Sun, "no glaring oversights by the agency," and there has been no major internal reorganization. Last week Tenet testified that, "when people use the word 'failure'--'failure' means no focus, no attention, no discipline--and those were not present in what either we or the FBI did here and around the world." The CIA, in other words, says it didn't do anything wrong. That's not surprising--it's what Republicans would expect a bureaucracy to say. What is surprising is that this administration-- in violation of everything it supposedly knows about bureaucracies--trusts the CIA to reform itself anyway. The Bushies imply that the CIA's work is too important to be hampered by pesky outsiders asking difficult questions. But it is precisely because it is so important that someone has to make sure the Agency learns from its mistakes. The administration also seems worried about hurting Agency morale. But, judging by its reaction to September 11, the problem is less low Agency morale than enduring Agency arrogance. A cynic might wonder whether all that talk about strict accountability and dramatic reform only applies to the parts of government the Bush administration doesn't like. When it comes to the agencies the White House prizes, it seems, the "responsibility era" can wait.