The Rush to Reorganize
By David Ignatius
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page A19
Okay, America, here's our intelligence reform agenda: The CIA recognized six years ago that America was at war with al Qaeda, so let's demote it. . . . Pentagon officials dragged their feet on dealing with terrorism, so let's give them more power. . . . The White House politicized the intelligence process, so let's create a new intelligence czar in the White House and give him control over domestic spying, too. The intelligence community suffers from too many fiefdoms, so let's create a few more.
Maybe that's an unfair summary of the recommendations made by the Sept. 11 commission. But as President Bush and John Kerry race to endorse the commission's agenda for change, you'd think the proposals had been handed down from heaven itself, rather than offered up for public discussion.
What these recommendations should trigger -- and what the country badly needs -- is a real debate about how best to fight terrorism, not a rubber stamp. America didn't have such a national debate after Sept. 11, or before the Iraq war, and we're suffering for it. The rush to climb on board the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations suggests that politicians are still running scared. They want to be on the right side of the terrorism issue and worry about the details later. That kind of thinking is what got us into trouble in Iraq.
The best thing about the commission is that it has rebuilt a center in American politics. It has rehabilitated bipartisanship -- to the point that the Bush administration, which for months did its best to derail the commission's work, is now pretending to be its best friend. That kind of hypocrisy is refreshing.
And it's reassuring, too, that the commission united partly because of a vicious partisan attack by Attorney General John Ashcroft on one of its Democratic members, Clinton administration deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick. You don't have to be a friend of Gorelick's (which I happen to be) to think that Ashcroft's attempt to blame her personally for the FBI's problems on Sept. 11 was a smear. When the Bushies tried to divide the commission in this way, the 10 members instead came together. Bravo.
Still, there's something dispiriting about the knee-jerk endorsement of the commission's proposals. The ink was barely dry on the 567-page report when Kerry gave it his blanket endorsement. Hoping to bind himself even more tightly to the commission's image of national unity, Kerry then proposed extending its life by 18 months.
Kerry's support for government by commission is hardly reassuring. The country needs a president who will take control of anti-terrorism policy, sift good proposals from bad and steer a steady course away from the maelstrom in which the United States finds itself.
Sadly, Kerry's me-too approach to the Sept. 11 commission is of a piece with his bland flag-waving on foreign policy in general. America is a nation at war. Yet we have no sense, even after Kerry has been nominated, of just what policies he would pursue in Iraq and the Middle East. There's a three-alarm blaze outside and he's telling us he supports the fire department.
The Bush administration's effort to wrap itself in the bipartisan flag of the commission is even more outrageous. Do the administration's spin controllers think the country has forgotten that the president refused to allow his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to testify before the panel until forced to do so by public outcry? Do they think people won't actually read the report and see its devastating account of the administration's failure to mobilize for the al Qaeda threat?
So let the debate begin. Personally, I think the commission is wrong to propose a national intelligence director at the White House. We already have such a position in the U.S. government -- it's called "national security adviser." For proof that it can mobilize the secret apparatus of government, just take a look at the records of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski in that job.
And I think the commission's plan to create a string of national intelligence centers, each handling collection and analysis on a separate topic, is badly misconceived. It reminds me of the AOL-Time Warner merger in its enthusiasm for what are likely to be spurious efficiencies. If enacted, it will soon fall of its own weight.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe these are great ideas whose merits will become clear as the nation discusses the details. The point is, we need a real debate. That's what the campaign of 2004 should be all about -- how this nation at war can fight terrorism wisely and well. It would be perverse if the Sept. 11 commission, in its sainted role as symbol of national unity, blocked the very discussion it was meant to foster.
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