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Jewish World Review May 24, 2002 / 13 Sivan, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Partisan sniping over terror war hurts the country | If a leak that President Bush got vague warnings of a potential plane hijacking prior to Sept. 11 led Washington politicians to start pulling out their knives, what will happen when the next big terrorist attack occurs?

Fortunately, Democrats quickly stopped making Watergate-like insinuations that Bush could or should have done more to prevent last year's terrorism, and Republicans stopped accusing the Democrats of lacking patriotism.

But reverberations continue. Democrats and liberal columnists are justifying finger-pointing at Bush by citing GOP attacks on President Bill Clinton's handling of terrorism. Republicans say that, if pre-Sept. 11 failures are to be investigated, the probes should go back to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, i.e. the Clinton era.

All this blame-casting is Washington at its worst. Republicans and Democrats, it seems, will savage each other even as America's enemies look for ways to mount new attacks.

And the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that partisan suspicion has seeped out of Washington and down to the grass roots.

Asked if the Bush administration did enough to follow up on pre-Sept. 11 intelligence reports, 67 percent of Democrats said it didn't while 67 percent of Republicans said it did.

Such findings are cause for us all to fear that partisan disunity - not patriotic determination - will greet the next attack inflicted by international terrorism.

As top administration officials have been warning, such an attack is bound to occur. There may be many.

Now is the time for politicians to remind their followers that we Americans are all in this together and that, whatever criticisms are leveled, they need to be directed at making the country safer in the future, not finding scapegoats in the past.

Clearly major intelligence failures allowed the terrorist attacks to occur, but the aim of inquiries into those failures ought to be to correct the systems involved, not find heads to chop.

After last week's nasty partisan exchange, Republicans and Democrats have been eager to issue assurances that they aren't interested in finger-pointing, but there's a partisan edge to Democratic claims that "we just want answers" and the defensive GOP responses.

The conflict is most apparent over two issues: whether to appoint an independent national commission to investigate Sept. 11 or to leave the task to the joint Intelligence committees of Congress, and whether to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

The lines drawn on the commission idea are not strictly partisan. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and The Weekly Standard magazine are allied with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) in favor of the commission.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is allied with the Bush administration in opposing it - and for much the same reason.

"It's not going to work," she said on CNN last weekend. "We're in the middle of a war on terror. We need to be together. We don't need to get into some sort of open firefight either between parties or between individuals."

Another Member who agrees with them is Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), a former CIA agent and staff director of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, who told me, "A high-profile witch hunt is not going to do any good. The Intelligence committees were created to provide oversight, and if they can't do the job, they ought to be reconstituted."

The administration's argument - which seems sound - is that the CIA, FBI and other agencies have enough work to do on current threats and shouldn't be burdened with multiple inquiries into past failures.

Moreover, it will take time for a commission to be formed, staffed and cleared - after which Sept. 11 may be displaced by other security concerns.

Whether alone or in parallel to a national commission, the Congressional joint intelligence panel also needs to keep its eye on the main task. At the moment, the panel seems to be split between those who want to improve future operations and those - such as Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) - who want to punish past failures by ousting CIA Director George Tenet and shaking up the FBI.

Though both agencies clearly failed prior to Sept. 11, they also have improved since. Tenet is no longer bound by rules forbidding recruitment of human rights violators as spies and the two agencies now share information.

Whether they share it adequately with Congress is an important issue. Shelby says they do not. If the administration wants support, it has to share information.

Evidence is mounting, in the meantime, that Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge lacks the authority to coordinate the disparate bureaucracies involved in anti-terrorism.

Lieberman wants to create a Cabinet department with direct control over the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but not the CIA and FBI.

A better - and bureaucratically simpler - model for a new agency might be the Office of Management and Budget, whose director answers to Congress and has purse-string power over government agencies, but not line responsibility.

Democrats and Republicans don't have to suppress every disagreement about terrorism, but they should argue on the merits and the national interest, not for partisan advantage.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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