- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

At this writing, there is reason to fear Congress will capitulate before the election to the demands of a high-powered and politically connected “special interest” group. Interestingly, if Congress does so in this case, it is unlikely there will be any of the populist demagoguery that usually accompanies legislators’ complying with such parochial demands (such as that heard recently when an array of election-eve tax breaks were given to “Chinese ceiling fan importers” and other corporate types).

To the contrary, in this case, there will probably be public condemnation only if Congress does the right thing, namely by declining to cobble together under duress and in great haste the most far-reaching changes in the American intelligence community in nearly 60 years. If that happens, the special interest in question — the September 11 commission and vocal relatives of those lost in the attack of September 11, 2001 — threaten to raise Cain and exact revenge at the polls.

This sort of pressure goes, as they say, with Congress’ territory. That those wielding it are, respectively, a bipartisan group of skilled political operatives and grieving kin, does not alter the fact, however, that the September 11 special interests are engaged in blackmail. Neither does it mitigate an ominous reality: The consequences of their threats could, ironically, greatly compound the problems afflicting the nation’s intelligence community, in time of war no less.

This danger exists even if the legislation sent to the president resembles the relatively benign version of the so-called intelligence reform bill adopted by the House of Representatives at the direction of its Republican leadership. Matters will be infinitely worse, though, if — as the September 11 special interests insist — the final statute more closely tracks with the Senate-passed version.

For example, both bills fall prey to the classic Beltway proclivity: For any problem, there is a bureaucratic solution. If the intelligence community did not perform as it should have in the run-up to September 11, the commission dictated a new level of management and a staff to coordinate counterterrorism activities.

The House-preferred approach would be less dysfunctional (for example, ultimate responsibility for defense-related intelligence agencies’ personnel and budget decisions would remain with the defense secretary). But even the House version of a national intelligence director and National Counterterrorism Center seems doomed to diminish competitive analysis — the one proven antidote to perilous intelligence “group-think” we supposedly are trying to avoid.

The Senate reform would greatly compound the counterproductiveness by subjecting intelligence agencies to even more insidious bureaucratic layering: yet another oversight board and officers charged with promoting privacy and civil liberties in eight (and possibly all federal) agencies.

It is predictable this back-door effort to appease critics of the Patriot Act will particularly chill efforts of those responsible for collecting, analyzing and rendering judgments about U.S. intelligence. They will find themselves constrained by fears of criticism, if not actual punishment, for being unduly attentive to the ever-hostile civil liberties community. Our monitoring and understanding of the threat will surely suffer as a result.

The September 11 special interests are no less adamant that the intelligence reform bill not contain highly desirable language crafted by the House leadership to provide additional law enforcement and immigration tools. Here the argument seems less about the merits of these additions than a pride of authorship. While the authorization of such new weapons in the war on terror would be consistent with the thrust of the commission’s findings, some in the Senate and among their principally left-wing constituencies insist on stripping these provisions from the bill. Such opposition reinforces concerns that this legislation will be less a strengthening of the hand of those waging the war on terror than a shackling of it.

The September 11 commission is owed a debt of gratitude for its thorough reconstruction of the events, and missteps, that led to the worst single episodes of foreign attacks on our soil in the nation’s history. Those who lost loved ones in those attacks are due our sympathy and consideration. Neither, however, is entitled to ride roughshod over deliberative legislative processes in a way that would make highly consequential and long-lasting alterations in what is now one of the government’s most indispensable functions: identifying and countering the threat from Islamofascist terrorists.

The September 11 special interests are pressing for completion of the intelligence reform conference and a recall of Congress to adopt its report before Nov. 2. But it behooves President Bush and the congressional leadership to allow the larger, national interest to determine when to complete action on intelligence reform and the contents of such legislation. The old expression “You want it bad, you’ll get it bad” applies in spades to this most sensitive of governmental activities.

Those who insist there will be no reform if the election leverage is not applied should be told, if the changes sought are needed and appropriate, there is every reason to expect they will pass muster in a more deliberative environment. A postponement to enable such deliberation can only be feared by those who know their “reforms” will conduce to less timely, accurate and useable intelligence. And to them, the answer should be a resounding “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide