- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

According to George Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, cabinet meetings in the White House often turned into dialogues between the “blind and the deaf.” Following the report of the September 11 commission and the scramble by both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry to embrace its recommendations to revamp U.S. intelligence, the response in Washington could easily expand Mr. O’Neill’s characterization to include the “blind, deaf and dumb.” Understanding why this cynical prediction is plausible and probable gets to the heart of the difficulty in making the nation safer and more secure from attack.

Despitethe currentterror alert, every thinking American knows we are in danger. As the September 11 commission concluded, while we may be safer, and I personally dissent from that view, we are not safe. Much more must be done to protect the nation. And, while people of good will may disagree on details, there is general understanding that significant change is needed. But the September 11 commission, for all of its valuable work and analysis, did not address the heart of what is wrong in how the nation provides for its common defense. Until citizens and politicians understand these fundamental problems, solutions are unlikely to work. And, given the understandable urgency for action, reinforced by the unanimous agreement of the September 11 commissioners to stay the course and ride herd in getting government to move, the time for this recognition to take hold grows shorter.

The risks of urgency driving process are real. The Bush administration originally opposed creating a new Homeland Security Department. Nonetheless, it was established with relatively little debate. There were obvious growing pains in bringing together scores of agencies and a 150,000 people. That this department reports to 88 committees and subcommittees of Congress alone suggests the dangers of a zealous rush to act. No single department can responsibly report to this gargantuan committee structure, nor can this massive congressional oversight structure responsibly carry out its duties. As a result, it may take years before the department can do its job.

What is wrong? Within the Executive Branch, jurisdictional lines of authority, accountability and responsibility are hopelessly blurred or out of date. For example, after the president, who is in charge of intelligence? The director of central intelligence, in reality, has no control or little control over the bulk of the intelligence budget that is the purview of the Department of Defense. And each of the major departments and agencies – Defense, the CIA and the FBI, for example — has profoundly limiting constraints that carry over from the Cold War.

When it comes to fighting and winning wars, the United States has the best military in the world. Title X of the U.S. Code defines the legal mission of the department as being to prepare for the “conduct of prompt, sustained operations incident to combat.” However, in the war on terror and postwar operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the department was less or ill-prepared for those duties. There are many reasons for this. However, if the nation is to defeat global terror, this deficiency must be corrected and the capability of the department expanded.

For the Cold War, a principal object of covert operations and the CIA’s way of doing business was to recruit and “turn” foreign nationals to work against their country. From Moscow to Mali, this was a golden rule. Agency lore has it that the best results came from walk-ins, not recruits. But the point is that turning terrorists or penetrating their networks is far more difficult than recruiting KGB agents or disheartened civil servants with attitudes and incentives not terribly different from ours. What is needed is human intelligence, not in the sense of more James Bonds, but people with better cultural and analytical understanding of threats and dangers. Similarly, the FBI knows it must change its focus from eight decades of prosecuting criminals under the law to stopping terror. But changes in culture and attitude will take time.

Meanwhile, a major culprit is Congress. With the antiquated processes and procedures accompanying the 13 annual appropriations bills and oversight that is often excessive, ineffective or wasteful, as the September 11 report recommended, Congress must change. But will it? Members will be reluctant to give up power and partisanship will make it extraordinarily difficult to change because both parties fear the other will benefit.

There are steps that can and must be taken. Some will be the focus of future columns. For the time being, Americans must understand that we are not safe. They must also understand that profound change in government is essential if we are to be safer and, for reasons as old as the nation, the reflex on the part of Congress and the executive that will prove strongest is preserving power and perks and resisting change. If that occurs, we will be “blind, deaf and dumb in Washington.”

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