Aesop once told the story of a jaybird that ventured into a yard
where peacocks used to walk. There the jay found a number of
feathers fallen from the majestic birds when they had last molted.
He tied them all to his tail and strutted toward the peacocks.
His cheat was quickly discovered, and the peacocks harassed the
imposter until all his borrowed plumes had fallen away. When
the jay could do no more than return to his own kind, having
watched him from afar, they were equally affronted by the jay's
The moral of the story, said Aesop, is
that it takes more than just fine feathers to make fine birds.
It is an age-old lesson that the Congress
should hold in its mind as we consider how best to investigate
the distorted and misleading intelligence that the administration
used to build its case for war in Iraq.
On February 6, the President announced
the creation of his own commission to investigate our intelligence
agencies to find out, in the words of Dr. David Kay, why we were
almost all wrong about the administration's prewar claims of
huge Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. If Congress
is serious about getting to the bottom of this apparent intelligence
failure and the administration's rush to war, we must realize
that once stripped of its dazzling plumage, the White House proposal
for its own so-called independent commission is a real, honest
to goodness turkey. It is not only fine feathers that make fine
The President has described the panel
that he created as being an independent commission. Well, nothing
could be further from the truth. This commission is 100 percent
under the thumb of the White House. Who created the panel's charter?
The President. Who chooses the panel members? The President.
To whom does the panel report? The President. Whom shall the
panel advise and assist? The President. Who is in charge of determining
what classified reports the panel may see? The President. Who
gets to decide whether the Congress may see the panel's report?
To describe this commission as independent
is to turn that word's definition on its head. In fact, the deeper
one delves into the text of the Executive order that creates
the President's so-called independent commission, the more one
finds that the commission is ill-equipped to discover just what
went wrong with the prewar intelligence on Iraq.
At first glance, the charter of the President's
commission appears very broad. It is to assess whether the intelligence
community of the United States is sufficiently authorized, organized,
equipped, trained, and resourced to tackle the threats of terrorism
and weapons of mass destruction. As part of that goal, the commission
is to compare prewar intelligence on Iraq with what has so far
That mission sounds like a mouthful,
but it really misses the point of why the American people are
calling for a commission to investigate in this matter.
The public has a right to know why our
intelligence on Iraq was so wrong, how the administration may
have misrepresented its intelligence, who is going to be held
accountable for misleading our country into war, and what will
be done to fix the problems with our intelligence. Those are
exactly the questions an independent intelligence panel should
be investigating, and yet the President's commission only skirts
those key issues.
What is more, even though the President
promised that his commission will investigate current intelligence
on North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan, his Executive order, in fact,
does not bother to direct the commission to review intelligence
on those countries. Instead, the President's Executive order
directs the commission to focus its energies on Libya and Afghanistan.
Libya and Afghanistan are not countries that the President has
labeled as part of his axis of evil. A real independent intelligence
commission would shine new light on how we assess the threats
of North Korea and Iran, not be distracted by sideshows that
will keep the commission busy until March 31, 2005.
The President has carefully drafted this
Executive order to allow himself to serve as the gatekeeper on
what information the so-called independent commission might have
access to. While the President directs Federal agencies to cooperate
with this commission, he also has created a giant loophole that
would prevent the most important intelligence products from being
read by his commission.
The Executive order reads as follows:
The President may at any time modify the security rules or procedures
of the commission to provide the necessary protection to classified
information. I was born at night but not last night. All of America
knows that the White House is in a dispute with the September
11 Commission over intelligence reports that were read by the
President. The commission wants them. The White House will not
give them. The Executive order drafted by the President to create
an intelligence commission makes sure that his own commission
will never see documents that the President does not want them
At least the 9/11 Commission has the
power to issue subpoenas for critical information. The President's
intelligence commission does not even have that power. The deck
is being stacked against a full and open inquiry on the prewar
intelligence on Iraq. Congress is not even assured of having
access to the commission's report.
The President has required that the commission
send its report to him in March 2005 and then within 90 days
the President will consult with the Congress concerning the commission's
report and recommendations.
Why can the Congress not simply read
the commission's report? Why should the White House be given
the opportunity to reword, reshape, redact, or even flat out
censor the so-called independent commission's report before Congress
can get their hands on it?
It is quite possible that if this so-called
independent commission is allowed to proceed as the President
has directed, Congress will never have the chance to review the
Tucked away in the President's Executive
order is a provision that intends to exempt this commission from
judicial review. Let us not forget that the Office of the Vice
President fought tooth and nail in Federal courts, and is still
doing so, to keep the General Accounting Office, an arm of the
Congress, from learning about the meetings of the Vice President's
energy task force.
Could this provision be an attempt to
hide the work of the President's intelligence commission from
Congress? I would not put such a scheme beyond the White House,
which has already demonstrated its zeal for secrecy.
The administration's case for war in
Iraq appears to have been built upon cherry-picked intelligence,
produced and massaged to hype the American people into going
along with a war of choice. The President's so-called independent
commission would allow the White House to do the exact same number
on the commission's report as it did on prewar intelligence and
analysis; namely, pick out only the parts that it wants the public
to see and bury the rest.
It is bitter irony that a report on whether
the administration covered up evidence that contradicted a rush
to war might itself be covered up under the terms of the President's
So what is next? An independent commission
to investigate the President's own commission? Is that so? I
wonder. Let us not make the mistake of ignoring the shortcomings
of the White House's version of an intelligence commission on
Iraq, only to be haunted by those problems later.
The revelation by Dr. Kay that he does
not believe any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction existed
in Iraq has dealt a blow to the President's case for war. It
has shaken the American people's faith in their Government. We
owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of what went
wrong with our intelligence agencies and whether the administration
misused the intelligence that it was provided.
The President has simultaneously promised
a commission to investigate these matters and stacked the deck
against the independence of his very own panel. That is not the
right way to gain the confidence of the American people in their
Government. It is yet another in a string of attempts by this
White House to mislead the American people on issues of national
Congress must step in and correct the
grievous error that the President has made in creating a commission
that is not equipped properly to do its job. Congress should
use the independent 9/11 Commission, a commission that has shown
itself to be fair, independent, and bipartisan, as a starting
point for how to create an independent panel to investigate the
Iraq intelligence failures. If the administration is serious
about getting to the bottom of this debacle, this new commission
might even be created in just a matter of days.
The American people deserve answers on
why the administration relied on faulty intelligence to take
this country to war without presence of an imminent threat. A
commission that is designed to keep the inquiry under the thumb
of the same White House that misled Congress and the public about
the nature of the threat from Saddam Hussein will never be able
to operate independently. So Congress should not allow the President
to get away with posting a fox at the door to the hen house.
The structure of the 9/11 Commission
is a solid foundation upon which to conduct an inquiry into the
administration's prewar intelligence claims. The 9/11 Commission
has been doing yeoman's work in digging into all of the events
that led up to those catastrophic attacks on New York and Washington.
In fact, the only real problem that the 9/11 Commission has faced
is the lack of cooperation from the White House.
After refusing to meet with the full
membership of the 9/11 Commission, the President and Vice President
have reluctantly proposed to meet only with the chairman and
vice chairman of the panel. And for how long? Just 1 hour.
The National Security Adviser has flatly
refused to participate in any public discussions with the Commission.
The White House position on dealing with the 9/11 Commission
is so unreasonable that the administration is drawing criticism
from both sides of that panel. There is even talk that former
Senator Bob Kerrey, who once served as Chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, could resign because of the administration's
refusal to let the Commission do its work. What could possibly
be the reason for this stonewalling by the White House?
It is as if a whole swath of the Washington
establishment has completely forgotten the horror of the terrorist
attacks that killed 3,000 innocent people. But the American people
have not forgotten. The American people have their priorities
straight. They place getting at the truth of how that tragedy
was carried out above election year politics.
Enough with the stonewalling. Enough
with the foot dragging. Enough with the election year politics.
The Senate acted correctly a few days ago to extend the life
of the 9/11 Commission so that it can get its work done, and
the House should promptly follow suit. Now Congress should act
quickly to create an independent Iraq intelligence commission.
The confidence of the American people in their Government, the
people's government, hangs in the balance.