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Brooks and Oliphant

May 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant; The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks and Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe. Mark Shields is off tonight.

David, we just heard some very harsh words about the FBI, The CIA, The state of our intelligence gathering mechanisms. Do you share this harsh judgment?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess so. The people who know what they’re talking about share it and they know more than me. I think Fred Thompson was fantastic and it is a shame that the Senate is structured in such a way that he didn’t feel satisfied so that he could stay there and run for reelection. That’s another story.

What you see from both senators and what you see across town is that so far the story has been in the scandal rut. We have a whistle blower, some leaks, we want investigations, we want to send some people off out of town in disgrace and then we’ll all smoke a cigarette and declare it over. But what there is a hunger for is institution building; that people are saying these FBI, CIA intelligence institutions were constructed to beat Joe Stalin and the mob in the 1930s. It has been a long time since they were put together. They were weakened in the 1970s. And people want to take a real institutional look at these organizations in the way people looked at institutions after War World II, what we needed for the Cold War. There is a hunger around town for a real broad look, which is not going to be solved by a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. It’s going to take, as Thompson indicated, something broader, something much longer term.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same thing, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, but I still see and detect a great hunger for a narrative of what happened last fall that we can all live with and learn from. And I think we can see this week that there are–.

JIM LEHRER: Such as — give us–.

TOM OLIPHANT: Up there on this joint Intelligence Committee work that’s going on– by the way, the hearings are just around the corner.

JIM LEHRER: They say the first week in June.

TOM OLIPHANT: I know they have been working for four months, but it still has a sort of rush quality when you ask around about it. But I do detect a beginning of a narrative line up there that is confusing because it seems to indicate a tremendous amount of concern at very high levels of the intelligence community, including in the White House, in the spring and early summer of last year, concerns that seem to then ratchet down during August inexplicably. In addition, I think, we’re beginning to learn something about different views among different officials about how serious the immediate threat was last summer. And I think before the institution building can take place, we have to better understand how the various signals and pieces of information were interpreted, fought over, acted on, not acted on over the course of those weeks.

JIM LEHRER: That is essentially what Senator Levin was saying, wasn’t it – that, yes, there may be an independent commission to do some of the deeper things that Fred Thompson and were you talking about, David, but that first you have to put the scenario together. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. The reason the interest got ratcheted down, it got bureaucratized, they set up working groups and plans that would get to the President’s desk and made it to the President’s desk. Like every bureaucracy, the product was less than the sum of its parts and the FBI Is acting like a bureaucracy now, which is to say it is in a primal crouch, which Mueller is trying to drag it out of but with limited success, really. The problem is the bureaucracy, which, again, I think it is no accident that somebody from the Library of Congress had the best analyses — somebody outside the system.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what you mean by that.

DAVID BROOKS: There was a researcher from the Library of Congress was doing an independent investigation into, for an Intelligence Committee, a committee of elder statesmen, and he said al-Qaida might try to hijack planes and crash into the Pentagon.

JIM LEHRER: That was in 1999 he said that.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s pretty good. Somebody outside of the system, an independent researcher. That’s the key, that we have this bureaucracy, which is less than the sum of its parts and we need to open up the system to that sort of independent research.

TOM OLIPHANT: Again though, I think your reference to that very document is a reason why we have to listen very carefully to what some of these officials are saying, because if you hear what Vice President Cheney has been saying for the past week, on the one hand this very brief reference on a briefing paper to President Bush on August 6 of last year, he used the word “rehash” to describe it perhaps with reference to what David just talked about. On the other hand, he resists turning over this document referring to it as what, the “crown jewels of our intelligence gathering” and it obviously can’t be both. There is also a remark of Condoleezza Rice’s, the national security adviser, that is still sticking out there unexplained where she said going into last weekend, that she can’t remember, doesn’t know which pieces of paper from the FBI and the CIA and other agencies actually made it into the White House and what was done with them.

DAVID BROOKS: It seems to me the administration all of a sudden faces two huge problems. The first you referred to in the news roundup, the possibility of backing off serious efforts to get rid of Saddam Hussein. If that’s true, their credibility will take a devastating fall in the next weeks. But the second is the story that both Tom and Fred Thompson referred to that somehow they take ownership of the errors of the past and they somehow become not the force of change, but the resistor to change. That’s a serious problem they face.

JIM LEHRER: It’s the old– in fact I asked Secretary Rumsfeld about this earlier in the week when he was on this program about this kind of idea that George Will came up several years ago, that we have no fault government – that nobody ever says, really, I’m responsible, we made a mistake here. I’ll take the heat. Even the people who didn’t– weren’t even in office won’t get angry, won’t get upset. That’s what you’re talking about.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s the team spirit. We’re in power, our guys are in power. We’re all together in this.

TOM OLIPHANT: It does lead to one other thing, which I think we saw this week, which I think is really dangerous. For reasons we can’t understand and know, there have been more warnings and alerts in the past six days than we’ve seen– I mean this color business hasn’t changed. It’s still yellow, whatever that’s supposed to mean — but apartment buildings, bridges…

JIM LEHRER: Two more today. I reported them in the News Summary. One for scuba divers and the other one for– what is the other one –

TOM OLIPHANT: Credibility ultimately is at stake. You try to bite your lip when you’re reading an FBI alert about terrorist scuba divers that is not corroborated and not specific. It’s almost a metaphor for us not knowing how to respond to the statements of our government when we’re at war, and that’s a very serious problem.

JIM LEHRER: The other one was railways and subways systems. Your opinions about it aside, do you feel that, sitting here now, and I won’t hold to you this, but do you think they will proceed and have the joint congressional hearing and not do an independent commission until that is done and then take the big picture– in other words, the Fred Thompson scenario rather than the one that Daschle was pushing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I would bet that would be it because it requires presidential support to have a commission of real importance. And the President we just saw is not in favor of it. I don’t see him doing a U-turn.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

TOM OLIPHANT: Not entirely. You have to listen to Bush’s words. It was interesting that he couched his opposition in processed terms “handling of classified information,” and this and that. If the support bills, all he has to say is the problems have been solved and we can proceed. He didn’t say “over my dead body”.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of over dead bodies, there’s another confrontation that seems to – I don’t know — you tell me, the Senate committee subpoenaed records of contacts between White House officials and Enron. And the White House turned over the documents or at least said they were going to turn over the documents. What is that all about.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s on one hand a fight, a political fight over is Enron going to hurt the administration. Joe Lieberman said I wanted documents from the administration. They were slow to give them to me. The White House people said “we were going to do it in time. We had until May. You rushed us because you want a public confrontation.” I don’t know who is right about that. I think there are two things that have come out of this. One, that while there were more contacts between the Enron and the Administration more than we knew, there is no evidence so far that they helped Enron in any way, so that’s good for the Administration. The bad part for the Administration – and this goes back to the investigation of the FBI — is they are in danger of getting the stereotype of being an administration that is deviously secretive, that is addicted to secrecy in the way Clinton was– the one stereotype we know about Clinton is sex. The one stereotype about Reagan was detached. Carter self-righteous. Every President gets his distinctive stereotype. There is a congealing sense that secretiveness is the flaw of the Bush Administration.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, of course, secretiveness is always beaten in the end, which is another reason why it’s a lousy–.

JIM LEHRER: Unlike the other three, which we will not go into.

TOM OLIPHANT: Wondering when they’re going to learn. I was struck when the material was made available, sort of, the other night, that the person doing it was the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzalez.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Gonzalez, right.

TOM OLIPHANT: And he made a statement that I think epitomizes maybe what’s wrong right now. These documents show that the Administration didn’t do anything to help Enron as it was sliding toward bankruptcy, or words to that effect. This is denying an allegation that hasn’t been made. The issue is the closeness of the Bush White House to the energy industry. There’s a lot to learn. I don’t think it is terribly significant that Ken Lay went to the White House Easter egg roll and that hadn’t been disclosed before. On the other hand, it is true that the Cheney energy task force issued a very strong endorsement of the trading practices that formed the core of Enron’s business. And understanding how they came to that judgment is, I think, at the crux of whether this remains a business scandal or becomes something more.

JIM LEHRER: You see it, those possibilities?

DAVID BROOKS: There were more contacts than we knew about but there is still no scandal there for the Bush people.

JIM LEHRER: Okay — No scandal. Those are words we don’t hear very often. But that’s where we’re going to leave it. Thank you both.