Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Broken Promise Worth Keeping

It has become a mantra for the Democratic Party, long accused of being "weak" on national defense and intelligence issues. Put us back in power, the Democrats pledged, and we'll fully implement the recommendations of the 9-11 commission, to prevent similar intelligence failures in the future.

Not so fast. The Washington Post is reporting that the Democrats have apparently decided to take a pass one of the committee's most important recommendations--the need to strengthen Congressional oversight. In 2004, the committee urged that the powers of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees be expanded, to include budgetary oversight and policy issues. But expanding the authority of the intel committees would come at the expense of other panels, notably the armed services committees and appropriations committees. Faced with a potential loss of power, influential Congressmen and Senators on those committees have long balked at the reform proposal. Republicans have stone-walled the idea for the past two years, and Democrats will apparently do the same when they take power in January.

As the Post notes, the expected lack of action will certainly anger 9-11 commission members, and families of those who died in the 2001 terror attacks. Former Congressman Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat who served on the commission, said that his party "pledged to implement all of the remaining 9/11 reforms, not just some of them." The daughter of a World Trade Center victim told the Post "that it wasn't a Chinese take-out menu, the 41 recommendations. You have to do them all."

And therein lies one of the great fallacies of the 9-11 Commission Report. Thanks largely to the MSM, Congressional Democrats--and members of the panel--the "recommendations" of the 9-11 commission have become the Holy Grail of intelligence reform, measures that must be implemented lock, stock and barrel. Fact is, the recommendations were just that--suggestions for change and reform. That's the beauty of presidential panels and "blue ribbon" commissions. Not only do they provide gainful employment for elder statesmen, there's no requirement that the President (or Congress) actually follow their advice.

While there is a certain, delicious irony that the Democrats who demanded blanked adoption of the panel's recommendations are now balking at some of those reforms, there are also sound reasons for ignoring some of that "advice." In an exercise of pure, inside-the-beltway
bureaucratic logic, the commission equates budgetary oversight with control. If Congress can get a firm grip on the intel community's fiscal reins (the reasonng goes), then control of intelligence programs and activities will certainly improve.

But there are a couple of problems with that approach. Despite John McCain's concern that Congress only spends "about 10 minutes a year" on the intelligence budget, there is the very real question of how many hearings and debates should be devoted to our most secretive operations. The 9-11 commission believes that this process would curb intel excesses, but it could also undermine sensitive programs that don't deserve excessive scrutiny. Under this approach, the NSA terrorist surveillance program might have been blown long before the infamous account in The New York Times, when some Congressman or staffer noticed an increase in funding and personnel for the intel agency and the FISA court. Do we really need more transparency when (seemingly) every sensitive intel program eventually winds up on the front page of the Times or the Post?

Additionally, there's the very real issue of how much insight Congress might actually gain with greater budgetary and policy authority. The spook world has long been a leader in "creative" financing, using cutouts, front companies and dummy operations to provide cover for on-going operations. Some of these activities fall under "black world" programs, which Congress has traditionally approved with a nod and a wink. Following the recommendations of the 9-11 panel, Congress would almost certainly have to provide more oversight in that realm of intelligence funding, with the same potential risks to on-going programs and national security. We've long argued that a democracy must protect certain secrets, and that includes the funding mechanisms for selected intelligence programs.

A quick case in point. One of my former neighbors (in an Air Force base housing complex) was an accounting and finance officer. In the early 1980s, he was deployed to a European-controlled island in the Mediterranean. Khadaffi was acting up, and the U.S. needed to keep an eye on Libya, necessitating the basing of American surveillance aircraft on that island. The presence of those aircraft was extremely sensitive; precautions were taken to minimize the deployment and keep the host nation happy.

One day, my neighbor was working at his desk when he opened an envelope from a U.S. government agency, not affiliated with the DoD. Inside, there was a lengthy letter from the agency's assistant director, addressed to the island's governor-general. The letter explained that the enclosed check (for a seven-figure amount) was for a "joint effort" to eradicate a certain type of plant-eating insect on the island. My neighbor had been a biology major in college; he knew enough entomology to understand that the insect was no threat to local agriculture; if anything, it was closer to extinction than posing an actual threat.

Believing there was some sort of mistake, my neighbor took the letter and check to his detachment commander. The Colonel read the letter, then offered simple and brief instructions to his accounting and finance officer: "Deliver it, today lieutenant, and don't ask questions."

That's when his clue light finally switched on. The check, of course, was payment for the host nation's cooperation against Libya, not some insect eradication program. The payment was routed through a "civilian" agency to provide cover for both the U.S. and the host nation. A little bit of creative financing that was necessary to protect an important intelligence operation.

Would increased Congressional oversight blow every black and "gray" program in the intel community? Hardly. But members of Congress (along with their staffers) have an uneven history of keeping secrets, and grandstanding on issues they champion or oppose. Greater Congressional authority over the intel budget would almost certainly lead to more leaks, more posturing, and the inevitable loss of programs, sources and information. That's sufficient reason--and, more importantly, the right reason--to ignore that recommendation from The 9-11 Commission.

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