Politics & Policy

Accountability & The Massachusetts Senator

John Kerry's intelligence-committee service isn't something to brag about.

Not long after the vaunted 9/11 Commission released its final report on July 22, Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry fully endorsed its findings and began deriding President Bush for not doing the same. Since then, the exigencies of governing have forced Bush to wrestle with the complexities of intelligence reform–which, the commissioners themselves have conceded, are extensive. Kerry, meanwhile, has gotten a free ride.

That ought to stop now. If, as Kerry the candidate claims, the commission got it right, that is a devastating indictment of Kerry the senator–and it does not bode well for a Kerry presidency in an era of terrorist peril.

Though Kerry tends to find complexity in the most straightforward of matters, his mainstream-media enablers have kept mum when it comes to his uncharacteristically un-nuanced position on the commission’s multi-faceted investigation. Without elaboration, we are told he embraces the commission. So sound, so bipartisan was its evaluation that we should adopt its recommendations tout de suite. Period.

Really? Well, with the much-anticipated debates on the horizon, a few follow-up questions would seem to be in order–if only someone would actually ask them.

After two decades in the Senate, Kerry is bereft of notable lawmaking accomplishments. Nonetheless, he has touted his membership on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1993 to early 2001 as a powerful presidential credential. But that stance could not be more at odds with the 9/11 commission’s findings.

According to the commission, legislative oversight of America’s intelligence community in the years prior to the 9/11 attacks was, in a word, woeful. The commission found that Congress gave its oversight responsibilities low priority and performed them exceedingly poorly. Terrorist organizations in particular received virtually no attention, and, the panel added, congress was essentially AWOL in helping the executive branch “address the questions of counterterrorism strategy and policy” (p. 106, footnote omitted).

The commission related that it had found

what can only be described as Congress’s slowness and inadequacy in treating the issue of terrorism in the years before 9/11. The legislative branch adjusted little and did not restructure itself to address changing threats. [Footnote omitted.] Its attention to terrorism was episodic and splintered across several committees. Congress gave little guidance to executive branch agencies, did not reform them in any significant way, and did not systematically perform oversight to identify, address, and attempt to resolve the many problems in national security and domestic agencies that became apparent in the aftermath of 9/11 (p. 106).

And that’s not all–far from it. Specifically, the commission undertook to examine oversight activity in the four years prior to the 9/11 attacks, during the first three of which Senator Kerry served on the intelligence committee. To put it mildly, this was an extremely eventful time, featuring, among other critical intelligence developments:

‐Osama bin Laden’s fatwas declaring war on the United States and calling for the murder of American civilians wherever in the world they could be found;

‐the bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, in which over 230 people were killed;

‐the intense deliberations over how to respond to the embassy attacks;

‐retaliatory strikes by the United States on an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and the al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (on suspicion of a collaborative effort by al Qaeda and Iraq to manufacture chemical weapons);

‐full-blown interagency debates over whether and how to follow up these retaliatory strikes with additional responses;

‐extensive deliberations regarding how to apprehend bin Laden, who was under indictment;

‐interagency discussions about how to deal with Pakistan and the Taliban concerning bin Laden’s safe-harbor arrangement in Afghanistan;

‐an Iraqi plot to recruit Islamic terrorists to bomb Radio Free Europe in Prague;

‐the Y2K alerts;

‐the Millennium bombing plots targeting Los Angeles International and Jordanian sites; and

‐the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors.

The commission’s finding? In these four years, beyond its annual worldwide threat session, the Senate Intelligence Committee held exactly eight–eight–hearings on terrorism. The commission’s assessment of that performance? Damning would be a good description:

The Senate and House intelligence panels did not raise public and congressional attention on Bin Ladin and al Qaeda prior to the joint inquiry into the attacks of September 11, perhaps in part because of the classified nature of their work. Yet in the context of committees that each hold scores of hearings every year on issues in their jurisdiction, this list is not impressive. Terrorism was a second- or third-order priority within the committees of Congress responsible for national security. [Footnote omitted] (pp. 106-7).

Nor is that the end of the scathing critique. The commission finds that Kerry and his colleagues were studiously unaccountable. “Congress,” the panel concluded, “had a distinct tendency to push questions of emerging national security threats off its own plate, leaving them for others to consider. Congress asked outside commissions to do the work that arguably was at the heart of its own oversight responsibilities.” Worse, having cravenly dodged the tough calls, Congress then proceeded to ignore the work of its unelected delegates. As the commission determined: “Beginning in 1999, the reports of these commissions made scores of recommendations to address terrorism and homeland security but drew little attention from Congress. Most of their impact came after 9/11″ (p. 107).

Because of this cavalier performance, the commission homed in on Congress when making recommendations about the national-security problems it believed most desperately needed fixing. It proposed streamlining oversight, ideally reposing it in a single bicameral committee, or, at most, one body in each house. Regardless of the model adopted, the commission stressed the need for “a relatively small group of members of Congress, given time and reason to master the subject and the agencies, to conduct oversight of the intelligence establishment and be clearly accountable for their work” (p. 420, emphasis added).

Given this report card, some obvious questions arise for Senator Kerry:

Kerry says he agrees with the commission’s report. Does he therefore agree that he and his fellow legislators abdicated their duty to provide thoughtful, engaged oversight of the intelligence community?

Does Kerry agree that he and his committee ignored the critical issue of emerging terrorist organizations?

Does Kerry agree that Congress failed to provide the executive branch with meaningful assistance in the development of counterterrorism policy in the years he served on the intelligence committee?

Does Kerry agree that it was irresponsible for the intelligence committee to hold fewer than eight hearings on terrorism in the three years from the start of 1998 through early 2001–when he was a member and when international terrorism emerged as America’s central national-security challenge?

Does Kerry agree that in his years in Congress, including on the intelligence committee, difficult national-security issues were regularly dodged and passed along to outside panels? Does he agree that the work of those panels was routinely disregarded?

And finally, there is the pivotal subject of accountability. Does Kerry agree with the commission’s conclusion that it is crucial for members of an intelligence-oversight committee to be accountable for the manner in which they carry out their duty?

Assuming he does–a fair assumption if one credits the senator’s overtly enthusiastic reception of the report and its recommendations–does Kerry believe he has been accountable? Does he believe his running mate, Senator John Edwards–who has also served on the intelligence committee and has similarly brandished that service as a qualification to lead–has been accountable?

According to published reports, Kerry was absent from over 75 percent of the public hearings conducted by the intelligence committee during his eight years of service–skipping 38 out of 49 such sessions. Edwards is reported to have missed 50 percent of the public hearings (four out of eight). Would Kerry agree that this record is indicative of precisely the problem that alarmed the commission: legislators who don’t take their oversight responsibilities seriously enough?

Kerry’s campaign has responded to the questions about his appalling attendance record not by challenging the statistics but by contending that they only account for the public hearings, not the closed sessions. This is not a trifling distinction. As the commission concluded, “The committees conduct their most important work in closed hearings or briefings in which security over classified material can be maintained” (p. 103). But that only underscores the salient point, because Kerry and Edwards have declined to release to voters their attendance records at closed committee proceedings.

Given Kerry’s strong public support of the commission’s conclusions, including presumably the vital need for congressional accountability, why won’t the candidate be accountable when it comes to his (and his running-mate’s) attendance records at the hearings in which the most sensitive matters of public safety have been examined? Disclosure of a member’s attendance record cannot conceivably imperil national security. The proceedings themselves are classified, but the committee chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, has said there would be no problem releasing attendance records–all that is required is for Kerry and Edwards to ask. Why aren’t they asking?

To assist the 9/11 Commission investigation over which Kerry swoons, various executive agencies consented to the examination–and in many instances the declassification–of untold thousands of sensitive documents. Even some highly classified daily briefings provided by the intelligence community to Presidents Bush and Clinton were disclosed to the commission, and their substance described in its report. This was done because the need for public accountability in the wake of the carnage wrought by the terrorists was thought to outweigh concerns about confidentiality.

Does Kerry really believe his mere attendance record at otherwise confidential committee hearings is more deserving of secrecy than the substantive details of presidential daily intelligence briefings? If so, why? If not, will he ask Senator Roberts to disclose the attendance record?

Senator Kerry has done plenty of pandering about the 9/11 Commission’s report. It is high time for him to address what the report actually says–especially insofar as it implicates his dedication to the weighty responsibilities of our national security.

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is reachable through www.bendorassociates.com.

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