Congress shares the blame for intelligence failures

July 14, 2004|By Cal Thomas

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Senate Intelligence Committee has found that bad information was provided to the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. Some members of Congress claim that had they known then what they know now, they would have not voted to authorize force to topple Saddam Hussein.

That adage about being careful about the finger you point at others because three are pointing back at you applies here.

It is Congress, not the executive branch, that fashions our intelligence apparatus, authorizes money and sets parameters beyond which information collection may not legally go. Congress should at least share equal blame with the various intelligence agencies for faulty information. That includes the newly minted Democratic vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, who is a member of the committee, but who apparently was not aware of much in his rapid pursuit of higher goals.

A little history adds to the understanding of the restrictions under which the CIA has been forced to operate.

The CIA was created in 1947 to address the Soviet Union's growing espionage activities. In the mid-1970s, Congress and the public began to question the role of the agency following the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. The media disclosed many abuses by intelligence agencies, and new guidelines were recommended by presidential commissions and drafted by congressional committees, including one headed by Sen. Frank Church restricting the work of the CIA and mandating stronger legislative oversight.

President Jimmy Carter signed the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, which restricted the right of Congress to monitor the CIA to the Senate and House intelligence committees. The law said just eight members of Congress were to receive special information, and that information was to be released to other members only under extraordinary circumstances.

The CIA's successes -- and there are many -- are less well-known than its failures, for obvious reasons. Early embarrassments include the Soviet downing in 1960 of the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers; the Bay of Pigs disaster under President John F. Kennedy; and the revelations that Mr. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been identified as a dangerous political malcontent, but that the CIA had lost track of him. During the Watergate period, the CIA was revealed to have spied on American citizens, and the agency took heat from Hollywood and the literary left. The Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration further besmirched the agency, and in 1994, when it was revealed that longtime CIA employee Aldrich Ames was a Soviet spy and the highest-paid American traitor in history, morale fell to new lows.

In the matter of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, Congress had access to the same information given to the White House and Pentagon. It was information credible to many other nations. In typical hand-washing fashion, Congress now wants to avoid taking blame and is passing the buck to others.

Senators could have questioned the accuracy of any of the intelligence they received, but the members of this body refuse to hold themselves even partially accountable.

Was it laziness or dereliction of duty on the part of Congress? Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times wrote a year ago: "Fewer than a dozen House members have taken the time to review more than 10,000 pages of intelligence documents backing up the administration claims about Iraq, which were made available more than a month ago." Where was congressional oversight?

The larger question -- is the world better off without Saddam Hussein in power? -- cannot be answered any other way but "yes." How much more dangerous would the world be had Mr. Hussein not been ousted and the Iraqi people given a chance to taste freedom for themselves? Civilization advances when any tyrant falls.

As Congress attempts to correct mistakes at the CIA, it should not ignore its own shortcomings.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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