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March 5, 2004

Fairy Tales, Bush & the 9-11 Commission


by Sen. Robert Byrd

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 actions.

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 birds.

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? The President.

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 been discovered.

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 to see.

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 commission's work.

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 Executive order.

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 security.

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.


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Robert
C. Byrd represents West Virginia in the United States Senate.

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