- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

Both President Bush and Congress are under enormous pressure to move quickly to carry out recommendations of the bipartisan commission that recently concluded an exhaustive review of events leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Commission members have pledged to campaign vigorously for adoption of their proposals, the president reportedly is considering at least partial execution of those suggestions by an executive order that would circumvent Congress, and congressional leaders plan hearings and possible legislation. The train is moving quickly, pushed in part by Sen. John Kerry’s insistence the commission’s charter be extended an additional 18 months to ensure the campaign for implementation does not lag.

It is not hard to understand the demand not only for change but for speed. The commission concluded that while the United States is safer today than it was at the time of the September 11 attacks, we are not yet fully safe. The threat persists and it is real. There are, in fact, people who wish not merely to challenge us but to destroy us. And yet this may be precisely the right time to remind both the president and Congress of the conservative scholar Russell Kirk’s warnings against “hasty innovation.” Citing both Plato and Edmund Burke, Kirk cautioned that “a statesman’s chief virtue … is prudence.” A case can be made, even here, for prudence.

The fact is, the commission has proposed a reorganization plan that may or may not make things better. It may make them worse. In any case, it offers no magic pill which, upon being swallowed, will allow us to sleep more securely.

The commission calls for creating what may best be described as a new federal intelligence czar. This new intelligence chief is be in charge of coordinating the activities of the various agencies that now gather and evaluate intelligence about potential threats to the national security. But coordination (and direction) do not depend on lines on a chart; they depend on exercising leadership and will.

For example, take the National Security Council. During the administration of the first President Bush, I was the ranking Republican member of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Operations Subcommittee. One of its functions was to fund this country’s foreign assistance programs. Some pieces of the appropriations pie went to functions directed by the State Department, others to functions of the Treasury Department, some to still other agencies.

Asked to resolve the conflicting demands of the Cabinet secretaries (James Baker at State, Nicholas Brady at Treasury), the NSC director and designated coordinator, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, chose not to get involved. Coordination — and control — require a willingness to knock heads and issue orders. Lines on an organization chart are meaningless otherwise.

There is a tendency to show serious resolve by creating not offices but departments and placing department heads in the president’s Cabinet. This was the case when Congress created the Department of Homeland Security. When Tom Ridge was put in charge of the White House of Homeland Security, he sat in the White House inner circle, down the hall from the chief of staff, the national security adviser and the president himself.

A call from Mr. Ridge to any Cabinet officer meant the president wanted something done. Now Mr. Ridge is a member of the Cabinet, reduced to a par with other Cabinet secretaries and, like them, at the mercy of the green-eyeshade decisionmakers at the Office of Management and Budget. Instead of calling a Donald Rumsfeld or John Ashcroft with the latest word from the chief, Mr. Ridge is now a peer with those he should be instructing.

There is one more reason why repairs to the security net should be undertaken cautiously. Much of the dysfunction in the security apparatus is due to very deliberate walls erected between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Following the activities of the 1960s, when the federal government conducted intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. citizens who were exercising their constitutional right of protest against government policies, civil libertarians properly stepped in to ensure spying was directed outward. Facing a new kind of enemy, many will now argue that the walls then erected must now be torn down. Perhaps so. But the demands of both security and civil liberties are important enough to suggest change occur only after careful deliberation.

It may be the threat we now face requires the most drastic overhaul. But one reason we were so wrong about the existence or nonexistence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and so ill-informed about what Osama bin Laden might be up to, had nothing to do with organizational structure. More than a quarter-century ago, the Carter administration decided to de-emphasize using human spies and concentrate instead on electronic eavesdropping. Our spy network disappeared and large parts of the world became even more shrouded in mystery. Changing that emphasis does not require restructuring government.

There is much to be weighed in the commission report and it should be weighed quickly but carefully. When one thinks of proceeding with “all deliberate speed,” the emphasis should be on the word “deliberate” as well as on the word “speed.”

Mickey Edwards is a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is a former member of the House Republican leadership.

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