Sunday, July 25, 2004

Revive congressional oversight


The Sept. 11 commission's final report called congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism "dysfunctional" and warned that strengthening it may be among the most difficult - and important - recommendations to achieve.

Already some Democratic congressmen in this presidential election season have rushed to assign partisan blame for 9-11 - a mistake the commissioners wisely avoided. Republican House speaker J. Dennis Hastert has signaled a go-slow series of hearings on the 9-11 proposals "over the next several months."

No time to dally

Meanwhile, intelligence officials ratchet up warnings that al-Qaida is plotting another major attack against U.S. targets. Congress needs to start at once on restructuring U.S. intelligence and oversight since the impact of any reforms won't be felt for months or years. If Congress dallies, the public should remember 9-11 and demand action.

The Sept. 11 panel's final report warned: "So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need."

The five Republican and five Democratic commissioners recommended either consolidating oversight into a joint House-Senate intelligence committee or giving a single committee in each house powers to both authorize and appropriate funds. Appropriations committee chairman will not be thrilled at that idea.

Oversight committee members would not be term-limited, to let them develop expertise. As it is now, oversight is scattered across many committees. It's called "stove-piping." Each committee looks at only its narrow slice of the action. Homeland security officials now appear before 88 different committees and subcommittees. The 9-11 report recommends also creating a single, principal committee for homeland security.

Terrible transitions

Terrorists still can exploit the transition period between U.S. administrations. The Bush administration did not have its deputy Cabinet officers in place until spring 2001, and sub-Cabinet officials were not confirmed until summer, if then. Like others before it, the administration didn't have its team on the job until at least six months after taking office - only weeks before the terrorist attack.

The 9-11 panel called for a series of reforms to speed up security clearances, Senate confirmations and intelligence briefings for the new people. No matter how bitter a campaign, no outgoing administration should leave the newcomers in the dark about national security threats.

A failure to regroup

The 9-11 commission directed some of its harshest criticism at Congress for allowing its intelligence oversight to wither and failing to reorganize, after the Cold War, against the new terrorist threat.

For airports, members were more likely to concern themselves with funding new runways than upgrading security.

"Terrorism was a second- or third-order priority within the committees of Congress responsible for national security," the final report said.

Post 9-11, Congress needs to quickly regroup and restructure for this post-Cold War threat.

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