Suppose officials at a football game didn’t call a single foul, but afterward issued a statement they had never seen such a foul-filled game and the two teams ought to be ashamed. You would figure that was peculiar, right?
Something comparable recently happened in the nation’s capital when the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report saying the CIA had done a truly lousy job gathering intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq. The charge seems true enough, although it follows the Senate Intelligence Committee has been doing a truly lousy job. The committee has a watchdog function. It is supposed to bark when the CIA messes up. And the fact is it had not previously done much barking.
Anybody who watches Congress closely knows this much about many (though certainly not all) of its members: Their irresponsibility is shocking. Thus — to pick just a couple of examples — Congress has let Social Security and Medicare slide toward crisis and has abetted the administration in an unconscionable spending spree. Pressed to account for themselves, members have all sorts of dodges — blame the other party or the executive branch or explain away a stupid vote by pointing to fringe issues that are beside the point.
But on the question of inadequate intelligence-agency alertness, the bipartisan September 11 commission so many of members wanted is not letting them get away with blaming everyone except themselves. Congressional oversight of the national intelligence community was a failure, the report says in urging the House and Senate to restructure committees so they can better do what they are supposed to do.
As of now, the intelligence committees in the House and Senate have considerable power to shape intelligence-agency policy, but they share that power with other committees that deal with appropriations and the military. The commission wants the intelligence committees to assume more of that control themselves, perhaps creating a joint House-Senate committee, and it also wants the two houses to establish permanent domestic-security committees to take over duties now divided among a host of different committees. It seems to make sense, but watch out, news accounts tell us: Congress will likely be reluctant to do this thing.
The problem is not that the proposals wouldn’t make oversight more effective but that they would require some members to let go of clout that is dear to their hearts, according to former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat. Now a member of the commission, he is quoted in an Associated Press story as saying, “When somebody is asked to give up something [in politics], they will come up with all kinds of reasons — other than the most important one, which is they don’t want to surrender authority — to cite for why they don’t want to do it. I am hopeful that the circumstances surrounding this commission will cause Congress to act differently, but I am not optimistic.”
It is a rather chilling indictment of Congress to say its members might be more concerned about preserving special prerogatives than about improving intelligence oversight to better protect Americans from terrorists. But it should not be too surprising when you notice how some of them — especially such Senate Democrats as Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia or presidential candidate John Kerry — berate the White House for believing bad intelligence when their own past public statements show they also believed it. It is especially grating that Mr. Rockefeller accuses the White House of pressuring the CIA into arriving at ill-based conclusions about the existence of WMD in Iraq when he had been on the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2001 and could have examined the quality of the CIA’s work earlier.
We can, at any rate, be thankful the September 11 commission included Congress in its list of institutions insufficiently imaginative about security threats that faced America after the demise of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the report, and the comments of members such as Mr. Kerrey, will cause Congress to reshape its committee structure and its sense of responsibility despite contrary predictions.
Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.