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Chill on the Hill | The Nation

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Chill on the Hill

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Despite the hysterical shuffling of chairs formally known as instituting Homeland Security, the sprawling intelligence-gathering apparatus that existed pre-9/11 likely will survive the restructuring largely unscathed. This does not bode well for averting future attacks. With the existence of terrorist "sleeper cells" in the American heartland apparently confirmed and the color-coded alert system ratcheted up recently to the second-highest level, the need for accurate, well-analyzed information has never been higher, but confidence in the quality of intelligence work never lower. By all appearances, the spy bureaucracy, now comprising fourteen agencies and about 100,000 employees--much of which will remain intact even with a new Department of Homeland Security--practically begs for the same kind of housecleaning under discussion at the moment in other establishment pillars, from the FBI to the INS.

Research support was provided by the Investigative
Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Russ Baker
Russ Baker is the founder of the Real News Project. He may be reached at contact@realnews.org.

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In late September a joint Congressional committee was generating daily headlines as it revealed a pattern of pre-9/11 intelligence failures and as sentiment belatedly coalesced around the need for an independent commission of inquiry. But it is one thing to dance vigorously in the glare of a harsh spotlight. It is another thing entirely to do the hard, unheralded and ultimately more meaningful work of policing and directing the intelligence community over the long haul. Even in recent days, random anecdotal evidence mounted that Congressional intelligence oversight bears too many markings of a rubber-stamping politburo. Two examples: the panel's inability to refer by name to a key 9/11 planner, though his identity could be found on the front page of the New York Times, and the Administration's determination to keep Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld from even having to comment on the general quality of intelligence they receive.

Congressional impotence was seldom clearer than early in the summer, when the White House accused the intelligence committees of leaking sensitive information. Panicky members rushed to invite the FBI to investigate and even polygraph them, raising the question: Who's investigating whom here? In the months prior to the recent dramatics, the prevailing winds were not those of reform but of fear--and less fear of terrorists than of the forces that wish to suppress information. Even most committee members known as comparatively reform-minded on other topics declined to respond to interview requests for this article.

One who did agree was Richard Shelby, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a moderately conservative Republican from Alabama who is one of the panel's few open critics of the intelligence community. In a long chat in his suite at the Hart Office Building during the summer before the public hearings had been scheduled, Shelby discussed the challenges of dealing with a closed subject in an open society. At one point, he mentioned having just received a handwritten letter from Zacarias Moussaoui. The Moroccan-born Frenchman, who is awaiting trial in connection with the 9/11 attacks, was requesting permission to address Congress, saying he wanted to talk about an FBI cover-up. Whether Moussaoui is crazy--or crazy like a fox--what he has to say seems worth hearing, so I asked Shelby if I could get a copy of the letter. Shelby consulted an aide, and concluded that he was able to accommodate me because the document had not been classified--yet. Absent any evidence that the letter was a coded instruction to sleeper cells from a man who was already in jail on September 11, 2001, it seemed an unlikely threat to national security. But in today's climate, everything is sensitive, everything quickly gets locked away from public view.

Apart from the intelligence agencies, only Shelby and his colleagues get to see at least some of these documents, and to ask tough questions. And Shelby himself admitted they're doing a lousy job of it. Decrying excessive "coziness" between committee members and those on whom they're supposed to ride herd, he had lamented, "Some people on the committee don't want us to have any public meetings."

With the convening of the open hearings, these antidemocratic tendencies have been momentarily neutralized. But history provides little assurance that Congress is about to transform itself into a body determined to force substantive changes on the intelligence community. The reality is that the Hill's would-be watchdogs face crushing liabilities, from poor information to information overload, from compromised members to compromised staff, from ignorance to inefficiency, from being bamboozled by the spy agencies to being intimidated by the White House, to--worst thing of all--willful myopia.

Since Congress first instituted oversight in the 1970s in response to egregious intelligence abuses (including a role in the violent overthrow of Chile's left-wing President Salvador Allende), vigilance has steadily declined--periodic fits of enthusiasm notwithstanding. Today there are fewer open meetings than a decade ago, and fewer independent witnesses are brought in to testify. The committees, with their aura of power and exclusivity, have become so popular that senators and representatives fight for appointments. But with seniority or pull rather than skill determining membership, the committees are full of people who either don't inspire confidence or who have reasons to fear the investigative capabilities of the agencies they're supposed to scrutinize. Thus, the Senate Intelligence Committee's Ron Wyden, who couldn't locate Bosnia on a globe during his first Senate race in 1996--after serving in the House for fifteen years--or name Canada's leader. And lame duck Gary Condit, with Chandra Levy's disappearance hanging over his head, still sits on the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

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