Politics & Policy

Intelligence-Reform Perversity

Rep. Pete Hoekstra should stand firm.

There is no perversity in Washington quite like election-year perversity. The debate over the intelligence-reform bill now in a House-Senate conference is a prime example. There is a rush to pass it by Nov. 2 just so Congress can boast to voters about having “done something” about intelligence, even if the chief “reform” in the bill will do nothing significant to improve, and may even hamper, our intelligence capacity. Meanwhile, House Republicans are coming under immense pressure from the 9/11 commissioners, congressional Democrats, and Senate Republicans to get out of the way of this empty-gesture legislating by dumping the immigration provisions in its version of the bill. These are the provisions that would actually enhance American security.

It is the September 11 Commission’s recommendations that have driven the action on the bill. The commission’s view is that our failure to anticipate and prevent September 11 stemmed from a system-wide, analytical failure to “connect the dots.” It attributed this malfunction to the lack of control exerted by the Director of Central Intelligence over the intelligence community’s 15 agencies and organizations. The commission proposed the creation of a National Intelligence Director (NID) wielding vast powers over the entire intelligence community’s budgets, policies, and procedures. Though even Congress has blanched at embracing every commission recommendation, it continues to agree with this general approach, with the Senate opting for a stronger version of the NID than the House.

“Since the commission’s diagnosis

of what ails our intelligence is wrong,

its cure is, at best, irrelevant, and

at worst, dangerous.”

Unfortunately, since the commission’s diagnosis of what ails our intelligence is wrong, its cure is, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, dangerous. One of its suggestions, for instance, is to transfer most of the military’s intelligence-gathering assets to the CIA. But that agency has always performed poorly when analyzing military issues, be they the size of the Soviet ICBM force, Soviet defense spending, Chinese military modernization, or Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpiles. In such a scenario, our intelligence assessments might actually become shoddier, not better.

The key problem is the failure to penetrate either rogue regimes, such as Iraq or Iran, or pan-national terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda. In recent decades, largely owing to legal constraints and bureaucratic culture, U.S. covert-action capability has been allowed to atrophy, obliging intelligence agencies to focus more on doing analysis in the office than on spying in the field. Regrettably, in this area, neither the commission nor the congressional bills offer much of anything, and so, much of painful current wrangling over the details of the NID is beside the point.

Most fundamentally, all of the current reform proposals reflect the notion that there can be a way to produce–with just a modicum of bureaucratic tinkering–infallible intelligence. This is a dangerous and ahistorical fantasy, one capable of substantially distorting American foreign policy. (A perfect example is the insistence by Democrats that preemption can be justified, if at all, only when we have a “perfect” threat assessment.) The bottom line is that there is no clever intelligence fix that can free us from the need to make tough foreign-policy and military choices–including those involving the use of force when the stakes are high and the dangers real, but the intelligence picture is less than crystal clear.

On the domestic-security front, the House version contains important reforms to tighten the immigration system. It would make passports the only foreign document acceptable to enter a federal building or board an airplane, i.e., Mexico’s illegal-alien I.D. card would no longer be accepted; illegals who have been here less than five years would not be allowed to appeal deportation decisions unless they applied for asylum; it would encourage national standards for drivers’ licenses in an effort to keep illegals from getting them; it would provide for additional visa officers, border-patrol agents, and interior immigration agents.

The 9/11 commissioners oppose all these items as too controversial for the current bill, even though they are drawn from its own final report and its staff report on terrorist travel. The White House is splitting the difference. It has endorsed the least-controversial items, such as increasing the border patrol. But it strenuously opposes the important passport, driver’s license, and expedited removal provisions. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and House negotiators should stand firm, secure in the knowledge that they are taking the 9/11 Commission report more seriously than anyone else in Washington, including the 9/11 commissioners themselves.

If there is a deadlock and no bill prior to the election, it would hardly be the disaster that credit-greedy congressmen consider it. Perhaps cooler heads would eventually prevail on the question of the NID, and a less-rushed consideration of the flaws of U.S. intelligence would prompt more creative and meaningful ideas. And maybe the 9/11 commissioners could take the time to refresh themselves on what their own report says about the appalling ability of the 9/11 terrorists to exploit immigration loopholes in this country as they plotted mass murder.

* * *

ROBERTSON’S FOLLY

His story doesn’t ring true.

Pat Robertson says God told him that Iraq would be “a) a disaster, and b) messy.” The broadcaster maintains that he shared this view with President Bush prior to the war and Bush brushed him off with a facile assurance that there would be no U.S. casualties in Iraq. Well. We don’t want to belittle a believer’s communications with God, but by Robertson’s account, God was being redundant, since disasters are inherently messy. Nor has this alleged divine warning been borne out yet. Iraq has been difficult but is not by any means a disaster. Which brings us to Robertson’s point about Bush. It doesn’t sound credible to us. NR editors were in the room on at least one occasion when Bush was challenged prior to the war about what might be unforeseen tragedies, from U.S. losses to mass civilian casualties. His response wasn’t to deny the possibility of them taking place, but to emphasize his resolve to see the enterprise through, even in the teeth of adversity. About his resolve Bush was right, and now he works to avert the Iraq disaster that Robertson–and, oddly enough, the liberal media–seem to consider pre-ordained.

* * *

ASIDES

Coincidence? Mary Beth Cahill declares Mary Cheney “fair game” and within days John Kerry takes out a hunting license.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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