TCS Daily

Investigations R Us

By James Pinkerton - February 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Investigations R Us. That could be the motto of Washington DC these days, as much politicking -- and precious little truth-discovering -- is conducted by the myriad commissions and inquiries swirling around the Bush administration. Many reports and findings will be produced, but few American minds will be changed as a result. And of course, George W. Bush isn't the only national figure destined for a thorough going-over -- as John Kerry is discovering.

Yet for all this effort, none of these investigations will even address the big questions of 2004.

Both the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees have long been studying the intelligence failures associated with 9-11 and the Iraq War as part of their general oversight function. But that wasn't good enough, declared Official Washington, and so in 2002 the President and Congress teamed up to create the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- the so-called 9-11 Commission -- chaired by former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. And now the White House has created yet another investigative body, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, co-chaired by former Senator Chuck Robb and US Court of Appeals judge Laurence Silberman, to investigate intelligence failures in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

But wait, there's more. There's that ongoing Justice Department investigation into the alleged White House leaking of the name of former CIA operative Valerie Plame. And -- who knows? -- maybe there'll be an inquiry into George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Although there's no proof that Bush personally acted in bad faith, these investigations have nonetheless eroded 43's standing in the polls. According to the latest Time/CNN poll, just 44 percent of Americans agree that Bush is "a leader you can trust," compared to 55 percent who say that they have "some doubts and reservations" about him.

Yet it's not obvious that any of these investigations, even when finally completed, will help fair-minded voters get a better gauge on the incumbent president. Indeed, it would be a surprise if any of these investigations performed any positive heuristic function, because these investigations -- especially in an election year -- are always intensely partisan, designed to give as much aid as possible to one side and as much discomfort as possible to the other side.

Watergate Legacy

The paradigm of modern investigate politics is Watergate. In that scandalous time, investigators freely leaked sensitive material to reporters, who, of course, were virtually unanimous in their detestation of Richard Nixon. In fact, so routine was such anti-Nixon leaking that it barely merited a mention as anything out of the ordinary.

In his 1976 memoir, The Right and the Power, Watergate Special Prosecutor (the old and more honest name for an Independent Counsel) Leon Jaworski revealed his la-de-da attitude toward leaks. "There was a news leak for every politician and every politician's aide in Washington," he wrote, including from his office. But it didn't bother him terribly much; as he recalled, "There were leaks from the Special Prosecution Force, all of which I decried but few of which I considered damaging either to our work or those under investigation." Which is to say, Jaworski didn't feel the need to issue anything more than pro forma protests against the indiscipline of his own staff.

Of course, Richard Nixon was in fact guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. But the Watergate investigations were about more than fact-finding; they were about election-winning. And so the muckraking did its job: the Republicans were defeated badly in the 1974 and 1976 elections.

Ever since then, the Legal-Media Investigative Complex (LMIC) has been wheeled up to the firing position many times, although with mixed success, as those being fired upon have developed counter-strategies.


When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted in 1986, the LMIC was poised to strike. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee said at the time, "We haven't had this much fun since Watergate." President Ronald Reagan appointed a commission, led by former senator John Tower (R-Tx.), to investigate his own behavior on the arms-for-hostages/aid to the Contras matter. Not too surprisingly, the Gipper-picked commission was fairly gentle on the President.

But the Democrats wanted more, and they got it -- although they got more than they bargained for. A full-blown Iran-Contra committee, possessed of all the powers of subpoena and investigation, would, they hoped, not only bury Reagan's legacy but also avalanche Republican hopes to win the 1988 presidential election -- especially with George H.W. Bush as the nominee.

But Reagan survived the damage. Indeed, in the course of the nationally televised inquiry, Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, who had served in Reagan's National Security Council, became a folk hero to tens of millions through his poised and passionate rebuttal of the charges. North proved that it was possible to play David to the LMIC Goliath. The Iran-Contra committee soon receded, and Vice President Bush went on to win the White House.

However, all through Bush 41's time at 1600 Pennsylvania, the independent counsel investigation of Lawrence Walsh continued onward. Indeed, on the Friday before the 1992 election, Walsh's office indicted former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. Republicans called the indictments a "late hit," but Bush lost his re-election bid.

So what will emerge in 2004? Nobody knows for sure, although 9-11 investigator Kean has said that there's "no smoking gun" in the Oval Office documents he's seen. And it's extremely unlikely that anyone in the Bush administration disregarded clear and specific information warning of the 9-11 attacks. Most likely, the picture that emerges will be murky; yes, if someone at the White House or the CIA had had the benefit of perfect insight, being able to put all the puzzle-pieces together, then perhaps the attacks could have been thwarted.

But of course, the other hot issue -- was Bush wise to take America to war against Iraq? -- is going to be even harder to answer. On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Tim Russert stated to Bush, "The night you took the country to war, March 17, you said this: 'Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.'" Those intelligence failures are going to be tougher to unravel.

What Are the Right Questions?

Which leads to the real point. The Legal-Media Investigative Complex might keep lawyers and reporters happily occupied, but amidst all the digging, the answers to the most important questions aren't likely to be revealed. So what are the right questions? There are three -- we can deal with the right questions for Kerry at another time.

First, did Bush show good judgment in going to war against Iraq? Was Iraq even the right enemy? It now seems apparent that we were attacked on 9-11 by a combination of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. And yet today, nearly 2 ½ years later, two of those countries, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are counted as allies by the Bush administration. Only now, 29 months after 9-11, the US is finally coming to grips with the reality that Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, was also the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons exporting program. Khan will be remembered as "the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear weapons technology," writes US News & World Report.

Second, are the premises of the Bush administration's theory of nuclear non-proliferation policy sound? In September, the President launched a "Proliferation Security Initiative" in conjunction with 11 other countries. And on Wednesday, he launched a further four-part program to stanch such non-proliferation. That's all very nice, and looks good on a fact sheet, but it could be that it's mostly for naught. Why? Because maybe the Bush Doctrine of Preemption speaks louder to other countries than does the Bush Anti-Proliferation Policy. To be sure, Bush had a success in Libya, where Qaddafi appears to have been scared out of his nuclear-jihad project. But other leaders around the world might be asking themselves, "Should we go non-nuclear, like Libya, and thus risk ending in a jail cell, like Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, or should we go nuclear, like Pakistan, which is an American ally? Or like North Korea, which is a regional player by virtue of its nukes? Or maybe like Iran, where, in the words of former Bush 41-Bill Clinton Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, "Even the moderates want nukes"?

Third, has Bush learned from the mistakes that have been made? For a man who has presided over one of the biggest intelligence SNAFUs in US history -- the not-found WMDs -- the President seems remarkably un-irked by this failure. In 1961, after CIA Director Allen Dulles gave President John Kennedy, a bum steer on the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, JFK cleaned house at Langley. By contrast, in 2004, Bush seems mostly anxious to assure CIA chief George Tenet that he will have his job no matter what. At a time when even Fox News' Bill O'Reilly is peeling away on the Iraq issue, Bush might be a little more determined to demand peak performance from his underlings.

As is already the case, the LMIC will huff and puff and spend millions this year, seeking out arcane answers to obscure questions. But a partisan, press-pressured LMIC won't be able to answer the megaquestion: how good a job has Bush done as president, and should he be re-elected? As he has said, 9-11 "changed everything." True enough. But the question for 2004 is whether Bush used good judgment in attacking Iraq in the light of threats elsewhere. That's not a question for a commission to decide; that's a question that voters must decide.

James Pinkerton last wrote for TCS about The Great Struggle: Media vs. Voters.


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