Any fears that an expanded Republican majority on Capitol Hill would simply become a larger tool for the Bush administration have already been put to rest in the lame-duck session of the past week. Most notably, Reps. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and James Sensenbrenner, head of the Judiciary Committee, have exerted their independence in blocking the headlong rush to intelligence "reform" legislation that puts current military operation in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk. For their pains and their real political courage in calling conventional wisdom into question, the two congressmen have been reviled as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. The imperial Senate and the "New York Times" editorial page agree: No compromise! No quarter! The time for reasoned argument has past!
Yet the proponents of the intelligence bill, propelled by the momentum of the 9/11 attacks, the politically organized 9/11 victims community, and the 9/11 Commission, have no answer for Hunter's criticisms. The nub of which is that the bill, by creating a national intelligence director with tremendously broad powers, would sever the link between "national" intelligence assets -- mostly satellites, now bought, maintained and operated by the Defense Department -- and troops in the field. The 9/11 panel and the bill made a false distinction between national intelligence gathering and tactical military operations. If this distinction were ever true, it was only in the depths of the Cold War, when the eyes of satellites were to focus on Soviet missile silos.
Indeed, much of the purpose of military "transformation" has been to destroy the hierarchical structure of intelligence, to make the most sophisticated imagery, intercepts, and other intelligence "products" as readily available to the lowest level of military organization. This is ever more essential in the kind of wars now being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; with good reason, the Marine Corps speaks of the "strategic corporal" -- the decisions made by infantrymen and their squad leaders in the heat of battle can have huge consequences.
In its enthusiasm to "do something" in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the press, politicians, and other purveyors of groupthink have made the demand for accountability in the intelligence community their sole goal. Never mind if the U.S. intelligence system is the correct tool for today's needs -- let's be sure we have someone to blame if things go wrong! Let's make him responsible for everything! We need one-stop shopping at finger-pointing time!
Duncan Hunter has another agenda: His son is a soldier in Iraq. He has a visceral understanding of how important it can be to know what's around the next corner, whether there's someone in the next room, and how useful it can be to have a satellite telephone close at hand. Hunter has the tacit support of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who has to keep his counsel because of the White House's campaign decision to appear to stand with the intelligence reform movement), and the overt support of JCS Chairman Gen. Richard Myers. Using a time-honored congressional maneuver and knowing that the Joint Chiefs have a legal requirement to provide Congress with unvarnished military advice, Hunter demanded that Myers state in writing his views about the intelligence bill. It's hardly a surprise that Myers thinks the legislation is a bad idea, but this has flummoxed the reformers. John McCain, who sponsored the bill creating the 9/11 Commission, called on the president to get Myers back in line.
It's not often that a guy like Duncan Hunter -- authorizing committee chairmen are now more like backbenchers than the congressional barons they once were -- has the guts and the smarts to derail a runaway process like this. House Speaker Dennis Hastert also deserves a purple heart for his quiet support of Hunter and Sensenbrenner. It's especially remarkable given the political steam built up around the 9/11 Commission and all of its works. But Hunter has successfully penetrated the panel's aura of infallibility, leaving supporters of intelligence reform sputtering, "We have to do something!" One should never underestimate the congressional urge to legislate before thinking, but Duncan Hunter seems, at least for the moment, to have scored a point in demanding that the reformers take a deep breath before they make things worse.
Stand fast, Duncan Hunter.
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.
By Tom Donnelly