Politics & Policy

Wrong Side of The Table

Jamie Gorelick, badly cast.

The activities of the 9/11 commission remind us that official Washington can be sorted by degrees of culpability. It is not to be cynical to suggest that what passes for inquest in the capital is often an elaborate effort to find a just dispensation of blame. How outcomes are received by the public mostly depends on whether an investigative panel succeeds at preserving the appearance of “independence,” or at least “balance.”

Yet, by some trick of fortune, Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general under President Clinton, is right now in the position of asking the questions, not answering them.

Gorelick, a key political ally of Al Gore who recently held a patronage position at Fannie Mae, is an exemplar of a certain kind of Washington ideal: the party mandarin who reaps the rewards of loyal service. As is the case with Richard Ben-Veniste, a Watergate prosecutor, Democrats routinely short-list Gorelick whenever they seek a reasonably tenacious partisan for an investigative panel. That in itself does not make Gorelick incapable of objectivity in the matter at hand. But whether her conclusions can be accepted ultimately will depend on whether one believes she has been able to keep an open mind about matters in which her own actions are at issue.

On Tuesday, former attorney general Janet Reno, under whom Gorelick served for three years beginning in 1994, testifies in open session. The questioning can reasonably be expected to focus on steps taken (or not taken) at the Justice Department in the wake of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City–the worst incidents of terrorism inside the United States before the Sept. 11 hijackings. Shouldn’t Gorelick provide the commission–and the public–with answers on these topics as well? There is something absurd about the notion that, rather than testifying, Gorelick will instead be asking Reno for information. Are there any questions she can ask to which she does not already have the answer? Gorelick’s role with the commission deprives the inquiry of a potentially valuable source of agreement or disagreement with the attorney general’s testimony.

Consider one theme that has emerged from the hearings to date: the hapless condition of the FBI’s antiterror efforts before the 9/11 attacks. If the attacks in New York and Oklahoma City amounted to failures for the FBI, what steps did Gorelick and other top officials at Justice, of which the agency is a part, take to defend against the next instance? Why did it take 9/11 to shift the FBI’s emphasis from enforcement to prevention? Did the poor relationship between Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh contribute to failures to restructure the FBI? Were any steps taken after the 1993 attacks to remove barriers that thwarted useful coordination between the FBI and the CIA?

The drift of the hearings to date has suggested that these questions cut to the heart of the inquiry. Gorelick herself seemed to affirm this when she questioned Condoleezza Rice last Thursday. The commissioner pointed to a report from 2001 that indicated, in her own words, that “we have big systemic problems. The FBI doesn’t work the way it should, and it doesn’t communicate with the intelligence community.” In the ensuing dialogue, Rice seemed to implicate Gorelick in the allegation.

Gorelick: Now, you have said that your policy review was meant to be comprehensive. You took your time because you wanted to get at the hard issues and have a hard-hitting, comprehensive policy. And yet there is nothing in [the policy review] about the vast domestic landscape that we were all warned needed so much attention. Can you give me the answer to the question why?

Rice: I would ask the following. We were there for 233 days. There had been a recognition for a number of years before–after the ‘93 bombing, and certainly after the [thwarted] millennium [attack in Los Angeles]–that there were challenges…inside the United States, and that there were challenges concerning our domestic agencies and the challenges concerning the FBI and the CIA. We were in office 233 days. It’s absolutely the case that we did not begin structural reform at the FBI. [Emphasis mine].

It bears mentioning here that the reforms that were finally enacted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks–as embodied in the Patriot Act–have emerged as a central element of the Democratic party’s overall indictment of the Bush administration. (Senator John Kerry, the party’s nominee-presumptive for president, has disavowed his own vote for the law on grounds that it was wrongly “implemented” and has been used to erode civil liberties.)

But the larger point is that no one began “structural reform” at the investigative agency before 9/11, though the problems had indeed been apparent for some time–certainly since the 1993 attack, which exposed core weaknesses in the sharing of domestic and foreign intelligence. Few people are better situated to explain these failures than Gorelick. But she happens to be on the wrong side of the witness table.

Ethan Wallison is White House correspondent for Roll Call.

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