A provision in the Homeland Security Department law ordered the establishment of a National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, the ostensible purpose of which is to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the failure of America’s intelligence agencies to predict and stop the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The commission is also to recommend solutions if any systemic failures are identified.
Like most other government commissions, this is really being done to preserve the government intelligence organizations and increase their funding. Because of the political impact of the 9/11 attacks, commission members from both political parties are more likely to engage in the “blame game,” using any information gained from the investigation to tar the other political party. Unfortunately, the findings like those of other similar commissions will not answer the question of why the U.S. intelligence system, with its approximately $3040 billion annual budget, could not detect and stop the 9/11 attacks. Even worse, this commission will not likely recommend appropriate changes to the intelligence community focus, size, or budget.
The “Why” of Government Commissions
There are several reasons that Congress and the President set up government commissions: 1) to take the political heat away from the Congress and the President, so that neither is made to bear direct responsibility for making some publicly repugnant recommendations; 2) to, hopefully, rig the answers of the independent commission so as to get the answers the Congress and the White House want, not the answers to questions that really need to be answered; 3) to con the public into believing that the government can actually solve a problem; and, 4) to give one’s political cronies quangos, i.e., a political payoff.
Taking the last item first, the term quango is an acronym for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization. Government commissions are certainly not non-governmental, but they are made to appear that way. By injecting the aura of an independent commission composed of apparent outsiders with the authority to make objective recommendations regarding some government problem, politicians con the public into believing that somehow government can be made to work effectively and efficiently, like a private business. While the acronym quango formally refers to an organization, the term is better known as a payoff to political cronies in that appointees get salaries and expenses to study a problem and give politically palatable recommendations.
What quangos in fact generally assure is that a commission’s findings will not embarrass those in power while removing most political heat that politicians have been getting on the specific issue at hand. Political insiders like quangos, as being appointed to such a commission gives a person a chance to earn some money on a prestigious commission, allows them entree to the reigning political class, and enables them to either maintain or establish political connections that can be useful in the future, whether in the form of getting high-level government liaison jobs with the private sector, outright lobbying positions or future political appointments. All of these factors reinforce the tendency of most commissions to deflect criticism from politicians currently in office.
Numerous examples of past commissions exist; here are a few of the more notable ones: 1) Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commissions (1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995 some more might be scheduled for the near future); 2) several Social Security commissions, one in the 1980’s and at least one more in the late 1990’s; 3) a relatively recent commission on Medicare reform; and, 4) several on terrorism and homeland security. The most effective was probably the series of commissions that led to defense base closures. Fashioned by outgoing Republican Majority Leader and economist Dick Armey, these commissions actually led to some cuts in unneeded military bases and even helped reduce defense spending in the 1990’s. Of course, both the White House and Congress had input regarding the members of the commission, who presumably did their political bidding in spreading the political pain of defense budget cuts. Moreover, commission members rarely took on the military by suggesting more rapid closures of bases than the military wanted.
Less effective or ineffective commissions that come to mind are the 198384 Social Security Commission, chaired by current Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. That commission was given a narrow scope, namely how to make the Social Security System solvent. Well, Congress and the president did adopt their recommendations, namely a sharp increase in Social Security taxes along with a very modest increase in the minimum retirement age. Both recommendations are still being implemented. This commission was not to investigate or make recommendations on the most important questions of all, that is, should the government be in the business of providing retirement payments (answer: NO!) and could taxpayers get a better deal from a private sector-based retirement system (answer: YES!).
A more recent Social Security Commission attempted to answer the real questions, but thus far Congress has not taken any action on its recommendations, which only offered a mix of options, including keeping parts of the current system intact.
In the late 1990’s, during the Clinton Administration, Congress also authorized a commission to look into the reform of Medicare. Saying that he would support the results of the commission, after the recommendations were made public, Clinton did a 180-degree turn, pulling his political support. He stated that the recommended changes would hurt senior citizens. Clinton made political hay with senior citizens but angered a number of Senators.
More recently, the Congress established a number of commissions on the terrorist threat faced by the United States and what should be done about it. Almost invariably, the commissions urged more federal involvement and more spending. At least one commission recommended a version of the recently adopted Homeland Security Department as the solution to our problems. Instead of asking questions such as “Could we not reduce the terrorist threat to the United States by changing our foreign policy to one of strict neutrality,” these commissions rigged the answers. Not too surprisingly, the Bush Administration resisted the idea of establishing a Homeland Security Department until the last minute, when it was able to milk it for political benefit in the recent elections.
The “National Commission on Terrorist Attacks”
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks may turn out a bit different than other commissions, but for a much different reason. While a recommendation to increase spending on intelligence collection and analysis is likely, this commission may also turn into a political blame game, with each political party’s representatives trying to win public approval by blaming the other one for the failure to detect and stop the 9/11 attacks.
With a $3 million budget, the commissioners can get paid up to $467 per day when they are on commission business plus another $200 per day (when in DC or any other expensive city) for living expenses. They will also hire some staff and probably have to pay rent for their main offices, which will be needed for up to 18 months. While not putting them in the league with Donald Trump, their pay is certainly not bad for doing political hack work.
Not satisfied with the results of a Congressional investigation on the causes of the 9/11 attacks (another sham and the Democrats apparently were not allowed to issue a minority report), Democrats insisted that the Homeland Security Department bill include a provision to have an independent commission determine what the intelligence community (hereafter the IC) knew about the 9/11 attacks, when did the IC know it, who did the IC notify in the chain of command, and what, if anything, can be done to fix the problem if it is systemic, that is, if it is found to be a flaw in the organizational structure. To get the Homeland Security bill passed into law, George Bush agreed to setting up this commission, one which might get his administration in some trouble.
The President selected Henry Kissinger as the Chairman. Who else could do a good job of glossing over findings that otherwise might make the Bush Administration look bad? However, Kissinger’s appointment caused great consternation among the radical left wing, as Kissinger is still being accused of putting out a CIA contract on the life of Chilean communist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970’s. After getting much heat, Kissinger resigned from the commission, several weeks after being appointed, citing apparent conflicts of interest in his representation of foreign governments in the United States. George Mitchell, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader, was initially appointed as the Deputy Chairman by the Democrats, but he bowed out even more quickly than Kissinger, being the first to cite apparent conflicts of interest due to the clients he represents.
Finally, Bush and the Republicans got their 5-man team in place, with former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean as the Chairman and four additional members: John Lehman, former Navy Secretary in the Reagan Administration; James Thompson, former Illinois Governor and former federal prosecutor; Fred Fielding, former White House Counsel for President Reagan; and, Slade Gorton, former U.S. Senator from Washington who was defeated in his 2000 re-election bid.
The Democrats have had their appointees in place for several weeks: Lee Hamilton, former Indiana Congressman, as Deputy Chairman in place of George Mitchell; Max Cleland, recently defeated in his run for re-election as U.S. Senator from Georgia; Timothy Roemer, former Congressman from Indiana; Richard Ben Veniste, an attorney who led the Democratic Watergate investigation legal efforts against Richard Nixon; and, Jamie Gorelick, former Clinton Administration Defense official as well as former Clinton Deputy Attorney General. Gorelick is currently the Vice Chairman of the Board of Federal National Mortgage Association Fannie Mae, the biggest quango of the federal government.
From the lineup, this commission is not only likely to call for more spending by the intelligence community which George Bush wants, it is also likely to turn into a real mud-slinging contest in which Democrats and Republicans blame each other for not detecting and preventing the 9/11 attacks. While the chairman and deputy chairman are likely to exhibit more of a compromising nature that is, recommend more spending on intelligence and possibly a few cosmetic institutional changes, most of the other members can be expected to support their party’s political position on 9/11 that is, blame the other guy!
Many of the members could have axes to grind. The Democrats are rumored to want to write a minority report, in which they will likely blame the Bush Administration for failing to do its job. Smarting from the mid-term election losses to Republicans, Democrats are eager to blame Republicans for 9/11.
Max Cleland, a triple amputee (both legs and his right arm) from his service in the Viet Nam war, was defeated in his run for re-election to the Senate in 2002 by being branded soft on terrorism and defense by his opponent. Cleland probably has a score to settle and would likely want to issue a minority report.
Richard Ben Veniste is an all-around Democratic utility player, who can be called in to tar the other side while giving some credibility to his findings. He certainly helped to do a job on Richard Nixon (not that Nixon did not deserve it) in the Watergate hearings.
Jamie Gorelick, who currently has one of the best quangos the U.S. government can offer Vice Chairman of Fannie Mae (her boss is Franklin Raines, who was the last Clinton Budget Director and got the biggest quango), is a shrewd attorney and unabashed partisan who kept watch on Janet Reno for the Clintons. She might also support the issuance of a partisan minority report. Thus, with the three left wing Democrats Cleland, Ben Veniste and Gorelick, a minority report that tars the Bush Administration is likely.
For the Republicans, John Lehman arguably is a real pit bull in the figurative sense. Lehman is known as being an especially tough bureaucratic in-fighter from his days as Navy Secretary, when he often obtained budget increases for the Navy, whether or not they really helped the nation’s ability to fight and win a war.
James Thompson, former Governor of Illinois, is also an experienced federal prosecutor, who can probably counter the legal skills of Ben Veniste and Gorelick. Ditto for Fred Fielding, who was Ronald Reagan’s White House Counsel. While these latter two may not have any axes to grind, neither is a shrinking violet when it comes to making the best case they can.
Prediction: Controversy and More Intelligence Spending
George Bush will get what he wants from this commission, possibly even more. Whatever they find, the commissioners are likely to recommend more resources for intelligence collection and analysis. They might recommend better coordination and sharing of intelligence information and analyses, along with cosmetic changes to the whole system. Are they likely to recommend something big, like the creation of a specific homeland security agency, stripping away the FBI’s functions in this area? This is possible but not very likely.
Regarding the blame game, Bush has been successful thus far in laying a lot of the blame for the 9/11 attacks on the Democrats, and he profited from this in the recent elections. Democrats on the commission will try to find any evidence of stupidity or malfeasance that can be used to tar Bush and Company. Republican members will try to dredge up Clinton Administration miscues or policies that might have led to the 9/11. They will also try to mute any Democratic messages written in a minority report. Bush, who more and more appears to be like Brer Rabbit, may want to be thrown into the briar patch by the Democrats so he can use the issue against them again in the 2004 elections.
On balance, the taxpayers will be out another $3 million for this commission and intelligence spending will be boosted, probably by billions of dollars. The only positive thing the public can hope to get from this commission is the entertainment value provided by any mud slinging. H.L. Mencken used to laugh at boobus Americanus and politicians in general. Since we are going to be stuck with another sham report, we ought to laugh as much as possible at the boobi politici Americani who will be populating this panel and their useless product.
December 23, 2002
Jim Grichar (aka Exx-Gman) [send him mail] was an economist with the federal government. He writes to "un-spin" the federal government's attempt to con the public, whether through its own public relations organs or via the usual stooges and dupes in the mainstream media.