June 13, 2004 | Washington Post

Oversee? More Like Overlook

“We want to understand what went wrong,” claims Sept. 11 commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton. Really? Then why, after conducting numerous open hearings at which its members subjected the FBI, the CIA, the State, Justice and Defense departments, and even the former mayor of New York and his lieutenants to public interrogations of what each could have done to prevent the attacks, has the commission failed to call a single member of Congress to answer those questions in public?

I know the good and the bad of congressional oversight for the intelligence community. I was chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence under Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). I have also, as a lawyer in private practice, attempted to get the intelligence committees to address problems. In general, Congress has performed poorly.

When I was chief counsel, I was privy to the fact that some of the senators who complained the loudest about executive branch conduct were the ones who had not come to the briefings or bothered to read the materials. There was a docket sheet. We knew who had entered the secure space to review documents. Times have not changed. The Post reports that when Congress debated the Iraq war, a 92-page assessment of the “alleged weapons of mass destruction” was “available to any member who showed up” in the vault. “[O]nly a few ever did.” Forty-six senators forced the CIA to declassify a section of a House-Senate report regarding Saudi Arabia's possible ties to the events of Sept. 11, but most did not read it. The klieg lights of TV cameras feel cozier than the dark vaults containing crucial information about intelligence gathering.

Funding for the intelligence community was neglected during the 1990s; its budget was cut every year from 1990 to 1995, then remained flat. Twenty-five percent of the CIA's personnel were cut, and foreign stations were closed as Congress spent the “peace dividend” on projects, which unlike classified spending, could be publicly touted to constituents. As CIA Director George Tenet told the Sept. 11 commission, “[W]e were not hiring new analysts, emphasizing the importance of expertise or giving analysts the tools they needed.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI's computer system used 1980s technology. The National Security Administration, the spying agency that is supposed to be high-tech because its mission is to “listen in” on private communications worldwide, could not communicate efficiently with its own employees. It had 68 separate e-mail systems. Where was congressional oversight for these agencies?

A major problem is that congressional intelligence oversight tends to be passive. The committees hear what the agencies tell them. Rarely do they act aggressively on this volunteered information. According to The Post, each year since he became director of central intelligence in 1997, Tenet had listed Osama bin Laden as one of the “top three threats facing the United States,” and had briefed the intelligence committees on that threat in detail in closed sessions. Congress did not take the issue to the next step, for example, demanding to know whether bin Laden could attack in the United States, and if so, how.

“Reform” also jeopardized effective oversight. In an effort to prevent members from remaining too long on the two intelligence committees and thus becoming tools of the intelligence community, Congress put in place eight-year term limits. Just when a lawmaker mastered the tough learning curve required by intelligence committee work, he or she was booted out. But Congress did not limit what it should have: the number of other committees that intelligence oversight members could serve on, so they could have time to spend on the varied and intricate issues.

Even one of the Sept. 11 commission's own members is aware of Congress's failure. Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former House member, has admitted that congressional oversight “has almost gone away.” He attributed this lack to Congress being too busy with the “budget and keeping up with daily events.” Four of the 10 commissioners have served in Congress. They should not use that relationship to shield former colleagues. If the commission sincerely wants to find out “what went wrong,” Congress must be a part of that inquiry. The commission has proclaimed that it is not a congressional body; it should prove the validity of that statement. Bring members of Congress's oversight bodies before a public hearing and ask what they could have done to prevent Sept. 11.

The writer, a founding partner of diGenova & Toensing, is a senior fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.