Another scandal, another commission

By Notra Trulock
web posted March 5, 2001

Louis Freeh's press conference revelation of a new spy scandal followed a script that has now become routine for a Washington scandal, especially one involving national security. Clinton era officials mastered the technique, and since Freeh is a Clinton appointee, no one should be surprised at his reliance on it. It goes pretty much like this: hold a press conference, reveal some new scandal or screw-up and in the very next breath, announce that some former high-ranking government official will conduct a review, a study, an inquiry, an investigation, a (you fill in the blank) to determine just what went wrong.

Of course, everyone knows what went wrong...people did not do their job. Practically every national security scandal of the past decade can be traced back to denial, complacency, managerial incompetence, arrogance, or all four combined. Instead of holding people accountable for fully implementing policies and procedures already in existence and, yes, even occasionally resigning, officials in Washington during the Clinton era established a whole new method to avoid responsibility.

FBI director Louis Freeh, left, and CIA director George Tenet, right, enter a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Robert Philip Hanssen spy case, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, February 28
FBI director Louis Freeh, left, and CIA director George Tenet, right, enter a closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on the Robert Philip Hanssen spy case, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, February 28

In this instance, Freeh has appointed Judge William Webster, who has the distinction of being both a former FBI and CIA director, to cover the FBI's tracks. Webster seems an unusual choice given that he was FBI Director when both the CIA's Aldrich Ames and FBI's Robert Hanssen began their long careers as Russian spies, and his tenure as CIA director was distinguished mostly by that agency's foot dragging on the case, plus numerous other intelligence failures. A glance back at the Justice Department's Inspector General (IG) 1997 report on the FBI's performance on the Ames case during Webster's tenure does not inspire confidence. The report notes that despite the loss of two very important FBI Soviet assets, the FBI never looked for a mole internally.

Webster's media interviews over the past week have already pretty much tipped his hand as to the results of his "inquiry." Tighter computer security, better document controls, more polygraphing...maybe. But mostly he will lament how difficult it is to catch an insider who turns on his country. Freeh will implement some, but not all of the recommendations; the tougher ones will be studied some more and then forgotten. Bet that no mention will be made of Freeh's failure to implement earlier recommendations stemming from the IG report or that Freeh ignored some of the very same security techniques for his own agency that he was recommending to other agencies. How can we be sure of this forecast? Because that's the way these things played out during the Clinton era and Freeh is a Clinton appointee, remember?

What national security agency or cabinet department didn't employ this scam over the past decade? The script is well rehearsed and pretty much follows the same pattern each time. A catastrophe or national security failure occurs, after a period of internal stalling and delay, the agency head holds a press conference, assumes personal responsibility for the "mistakes" (but never, ever resigns), and then announces the establishment of a blue ribbon commission or study to ensure that this doesn't happen again. A new cottage industry around the Beltway provides the bodies to staff these study groups. Participation is limited mostly to retired generals or admirals, although lately retired congressmen have gotten in on the act. Sprinkle the commission with a couple of "prominent" academicians, usually scientists and, presto, out pops the commission report.

You name the Clinton national security blunder or failure and a commission was sure to follow. For example, from the Downing Assessment after the Khobar Towers bombing to the U.S.S. Cole commission report, the Pentagon employed this technique in the aftermath of each and every U.S. military blunder. Each commission was headed by a retired flag officer and each report shared some common recommendations. Most notably, all pointed to both bad intelligence and poor counterintelligence as a key cause of the disaster. The Pentagon got this routine down pretty well; most recently, the USS Cole terrorist attack was studied by two retired admirals, who dutifully produced a report with recommendations, etc, including the need for more and better intell. The State Department, after the African embassy bombings, followed the script and offered up a commission report endorsed by a prestigious former U.S. admiral.

Not to be outdone, the Intelligence Community under George Tenet relied heavily on a retired admiral to clean up after its failure to detect the South Asian nuclear crisis of 1998. One key element of the script is to make sure that you appoint the commission; otherwise, you might not like the results. Tenet hated the conclusions of the Cox Committee report on Chinese espionage and did what he could to undermine its credibility. Likewise, CIA efforts on future ballistic missile threats were widely ridiculed around Washington, but Tenet didn't move fast enough to head off another congressionally mandated study that produced the Rumsfeld report.

Of course, nobody was better at this than the Department of Energy. DOE has probably spent as much on "independent commissions" and "outside reviews" as the U.S. spent on developing its first atomic bomb. The JASONs studied the feasibility of maintaining the nuclear stockpile without underground testing; the Galvin report recommended the reorganization and even the closure of some of the DOE national labs; security and counterintelligence were studied to death; the Childs Commission studied retention problems for the labs; and, retired congressmen recently studied the impact of tightened security on the morale of lab scientists (ours, not the Chinese whose access to our secrets might have been impaired by such security). Retired FBI agents were hired to conduct extensive reviews of DOE counterintelligence policies and procedures; although they might have spent their time more profitably by taking a closer look at the FBI's National Security Division, where Hanssen was busy selling us out to the Russians.

Commissions, studies, and inquiries are all well and good. It gives retired flag officers, congressmen, and high-ranking cabinet officials something to do with their time. But when is the last time that any of these produced a report with recommendations that were actually implemented? Where is the record of any implementation of these recommendations? In truth, these are simply eye-wash that gives the senior official an opportunity to look engaged, appear to be doing something...anything, and give that official an excuse not to resign in disgrace. After all, he or she is fixing the problem, right?

Notra Trulock is the Director of Media Relations at the Free Congress Foundation.

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