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Mary McGrory

The Hush on Inquiries

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, May 26, 2002; Page B07

One was in Berlin at a news conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the other in a television studio with "Larry King Live"; but they were both on message: The president and vice president were as one about the importance of not having a commission of inquiry into intelligence failures pre-9/11.

It figures that an administration that is prone to coverup -- remember the formerly topless, now decently draped aluminum hussy in the Great Hall of the Justice Department? -- would abhor a blue-ribbon probe of what went wrong. Such a group might lack the proper respect for wartime sensitivities; unelected probers might not tremble at the sight of George W. Bush's approval ratings. It could strike at the heart of Bush's prime claim, competence. The country is supposed to be in the very best of hands, old hands that Bush hired to keep bunglers at bay.

_____More McGrory_____
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Bush's popularity is the central fact of U.S. politics. Nothing seems to dent it. A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows that while 46 percent of the responders faulted the administration for failing to do more against terror, Bush's overall approval rating remains at an astronomical 76 percent, which is a drop of two points since mid-April.

That is why Bush and Cheney are rooting for a congressional panel, such as that of the House and Senate intelligence committees. They are mired in strife and intrigue. According to Post reporters Walter Pincus and Dana Priest, the panel had to replace its staff director and is generally too busy with its own internal rivalries to track the conflict between the FBI and the CIA.

The problem? Members didn't want to be identified as investigating. People might think they were being critical of the president or, God forbid, unpatriotic. Cheney told Larry King, "Our concern is that if we lay another investigation on that we'll just multiply potential sources we can't disclose. The key to our ability to defend ourselves and to take out the terrorists lies in intelligence."

Bush was equally forbidding about the inevitable consequences of letting taxpayers know how their money is being spent -- we shell out $30 billion for intelligence. He said that "we don't want to give away sources and uses and methodology of intelligence gathering."

All presidents wish that Congress and the general public would mind their own business and docilely accept what they are told. But the Bush resistance has a ferocious quality about it. Cheney vociferously protested when the Sierra Club, a leading environmental group, sued him for details about the Enron oil spill on the administration's energy policy. He flatly refused to provide the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee with paper on his parleys with Enron chairman Kenneth Lay, the Texas tycoon who plummeted from favor with a president who once called him "Kenny Boy" but who couldn't remember his name after the fall. Cheney huffed and puffed that the Senate sleuths would endanger a president's right to obtain confidential information from shy sources.

On Thursday, White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales sent an eight-page, single-spaced letter to Chairman Joe Lieberman of the Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman says the eight pages are not enough, but they are enough to shred Cheney's claim about the difficulty of getting confidential advice: As far as Ken Lay was concerned, it was hard to get away from it -- not that anyone at the White House particularly seemed to want to.

Ken Lay was extravagant with his advice, dropping names for energy-related posts and policy suggestions on the many opportunities afforded him. Here is a sample from the letter: "A number of White House visits by Enron-affiliated individuals including on occasion, Lay, for ceremonial or large group events such as inaugural festivities, the 2001 Easter Egg roll, a tee-ball game, remarks to the Horatio Alger Association and other presidential or vice-presidential speeches."

The White House was his second home.

The same day, a U.S. District Court Judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, refused to dismiss the Sierra Club's suit against the Cheney energy task force, as Cheney had requested. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, hailed the judge's decision as "a great victory," which means we could find out about an oil policy that was a "joint venture" between the White House and "a current version of the Ponzi scheme."

But Washington is not focused on scandals in Enron or intelligence. Neither can compete with the police investigation of the case of Chandra Levy, a Washington intern with big hair and big dreams and an affair with her California congressman. Her sadly decomposed body was found in Rock Creek Park by a man and his dog who were searching for turtles. The talk is about nothing else.


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