Politics & Policy

Washington At Its Worst

Intelligence-reform absurdity.

“Intelligence reform” is, as they used to say of the Moral Majority, neither. The intelligence-reform bill that has at least temporarily been scuttled on Capitol Hill despite its endorsement by all the great and good of Washington–from Democratic congressional leaders to President Bush–is neither intelligent nor is it real reform. It is a meaningless, and perhaps even counterproductive, bureaucratic reshuffling that has garnered such across-the-board praise exactly because it is such an empty gesture.

The idea behind the reform bill–pushed primarily by the 9/11 Commission–is that what ails U.S. intelligence can be fixed by the creation of a national intelligence director, centralizing vast powers over the intelligence community’s budgets, policies and procedures. This is supposedly a bureaucratic magic bullet. Of course, if the bill passes and if–God forbid–there’s another major terror attack a few years hence, the complaint will immediately go up that U.S. intelligence is “too centralized.”

The fact is that measures to make us safer usually aren’t uncontroversial–for instance, taking the fight to the enemy overseas as aggressively as possible, or offending the civil-liberties lobby by implementing the Patriot Act. Since many Democrats don’t endorse these steps (in fact, routinely howl about them), they are always looking to get onboard window-dressing tough-on-terror measures, which is what makes the intelligence-reform bill a perfect cause for them.

If only U.S. intelligence could actually be cured by fiddling with its bureaucratic structure. Among other failings, we have been beset by an inability to penetrate either rogue regimes, such as Iraq or Iran, or pan-national terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda. Largely owing to legal constraints and the CIA’s risk-averse culture, U.S. covert-action capability has atrophied throughout the decades–and the intelligence-reform bill will do nothing to fix it. (Bush, on the other hand, has just issued an executive order to beef up the covert service, which is a step in the right direction.)

On top of the meaningless, the reform bill piles the potentially harmful: transferring most of the military’s intelligence-gathering assets to the CIA. Never mind that that agency has always performed poorly when analyzing military issues, whether it was the size of the Soviet ICBM force, Chinese military modernization or Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpiles. And the nation’s military leadership understandably worries about its ability to get real-time intelligence to the troops being disrupted by this utterly unnecessary “fix.”

There has been one bright spot in the debate about the bill. House Republicans, lead by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, have pushed for provisions to tighten up the U.S. immigration system that was so readily exploited by the 9/11 terrorists. This, together with a dispute about the military-intelligence changes, is what has derailed the bill: No one else wants to close the immigration loopholes. Even though the immigration proposals–from tightening the standards around driver’s licenses and other identification documents to expediting deportation procedures–were all endorsed in the 9/11 Commission’s work.

Amazingly, the 9/11 commissioners themselves now oppose making their own immigration proposals into law, since they are “too controversial.” Well, they would be less controversial if the commissioners actually stood by them. And if these commissioners are so brave and independent, shouldn’t they be willing to fight for the “controversial”? Alas, no. Who knew the commissioners would become even more absurd in their post-commission iteration than they were when they were an active commission providing a bandbox for Richard Clarke’s diatribes?

Desperate efforts are now being undertaken to save the intelligence-reform bill. Abuse is being hurled at House Republicans and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, who, in the absurd imaginings of his critics, secretly engineered the Capitol Hill doings that undid the bill while he was away at a summit in Latin America. This is Washington at its worst. The intelligence-reform bill should stay dead, so Congress can–one can always hope, at least–better occupy itself elsewhere.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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