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April 27, 2004
Washington Post: Congress Fumbled on Intelligence

While the 9/11 Commission has publicly played a game of Pin The Blame On The Elephant, Dana Priest at the Washington Post puts together a devastating look at Congress' role in ignoring security threats and undermining the systems designed to detect them and protect the US:

In the fall of 2002, as Congress debated waging war in Iraq, copies of a 92-page assessment of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction sat in two vaults on Capitol Hill, each protected by armed security guards and available to any member who showed up in person, without staff.

But only a few ever did. No more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page National Intelligence Estimate executive summary, according to several congressional aides responsible for safeguarding the classified material. ...

Committee members acknowledge in hindsight that they presided over damaging cuts in the CIA's operational budget over the past decade. They knew the details: that the intelligence community's budget had been cut every year between 1990 and 1996, and that it remained flat from 1996 to 2000. They knew the agency had been forced to cut 25 percent of its personnel and closed some stations overseas.

Priest describes more than just benign neglect; in the wake of several terrorist attacks during the 1990s, one would have expected the Congressional committees with intelligence oversight, at least, to take an interest in intelligence matters. Instead, most members seem disinterested in immersing themselves in the technical aspects of the work, especially since it provides no opportunities for public hearings -- which means no publicity. Staffers cannot access the sensitive material for security reasons, so the normal process of summarizing can't be applied; the members have to do the work themselves. And as a result, it simply doesn't get done.

Priest notes various incidents and the excuses given by committee members for sloughing it off:

Although many have criticized the president for appearing inattentive to reports on al Qaeda before Sept. 11, the Senate intelligence committee, which is given classified daily reports on terrorism and other intelligence, held only one closed-door hearing devoted to al Qaeda and bin Laden in the months before the attacks, according to congressional and administration officials. Some staff members recalled holding a second meeting; others did not.

Forty-six senators -- none of them members of the intelligence committee -- demanded that the CIA declassify a section of the House-Senate Sept. 11 report that dealt with Saudi Arabia, saying it was crucial to the public's understanding of the terror plot. But most of the 46 senators, including the campaign's leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), never read the 28 pages they insisted be released. "I intentionally didn't read it because this administration plays hardball on things like this," said Schumer, who said he talked to senators who had read the 28 pages and told him it contained no real secrets. "Had I read the report and been critical, they would have accused me of leaking it the way they've done with other senators."

The House intelligence committee believed the voluminous House-Senate report was so important that it temporarily changed its rules to allow all members of the House to read the classified report. "There weren't a lot of takers on the 9/11 report," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the committee's vice chairman. Partly, she said, this was because members' personal staffs were not given access, leaving the hard work to members themselves. "Some didn't want to do the homework," she said.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said some members with packed daily schedules are deterred simply by the prospect of trekking across Capitol grounds to the secure Hart Senate Office Building room where the Senate's classified material is kept.

I recall the controversy over the Saudi Arabia report, when Democrats insisted that the redacted version might contain embarassing revelations about Bush's connections to the Saudis. Now we find out that after publicly demanding access to the raw report -- and getting it -- most of them never bothered to look at it. Schumer, who sucked up most of the TV face time on this issue, uses the lame excuse that he was afraid of being accused of leaking the data. Rarely, if ever, will one see a more blatant example of empty (and empty-headed) partisan politics.

Instead of invoking Richard Clarke to accuse the Bush administration of a lack of attention to al-Qaeda, Congress needs to look at their own performance, when they couldn't even be bothered to look at the data while stripping the CIA of its resources. Even if you believe the worst of the Clarke accusations, the Bush administration was Patton-like on terrorism and security compared to the pathetic performance of Charles Schumer and the rest of Congress, especially the intelligence oversight committees. Read the entire article and make notes for the elections in November.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 27, 2004 6:36 AM

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