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Blue-Ribbon Reruns
May 29, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

The list evokes a litany of embarrassments and bad press for the FBI: Richard Jewell, Timothy McVeigh, Wen Ho Lee, Robert Hanssen and now Coleen Rowley. Details surrounding these cases lend support to the idea that this is an organization that needs to be seriously scrutinized, then restructured and transformed.

Leading Democrats say they want to get to the heart of the FBI's intelligence failures. They contend that the best approach to uncover the truth is to have an independent commission delve into the matter.

Leading Republicans maintain that the ongoing congressional investigations are sufficient enough to carve a path to the truth.

Even the casual observer can see that problems at the FBI run deep. Reshuffling personnel or hiring new employees may be typical of a Washington fix, but such actions are not going to remedy a malignant infrastructure.

Of course, conditions afflicting the FBI did not develop overnight. They were building for decades. Under the direction of former Attorney General Janet Reno, they seemed to reach breakneck speed.

Finding a high-level insider who knows where the bones are buried is going to be essential. But there's a catch. It appears as though the insiders are actually the ones protecting each other. Truth now lies buried beneath layers of bureaucratic camouflage.

So why not have an independent commission, a blue-ribbon panel? There are several reasons why this kind of approach may prove to be unworkable.

First, the blame game is part of a pursuit for political advantage. Both parties know this. As long as elections are on the minds of those who are supposed to find out the facts, behavior will be profoundly influenced.

Second, most of the subject matter in this investigation is not for public consumption. Republican concerns about leaks of classified material apply equally to blue-ribbon leakers. The administration, with the support of the intelligence and military communities, will be able to make a strong case for keeping substantial portions of classified information away from panels and even larger amounts of data away from the public.

Third, the question of timing looms large. Since Sept. 11, most people know there is a risk meter in place, whose needle rises with each passing day. Terrorist organizations, and the evildoers who support them, are assiduously building weapons that are meant to kill the most people with the greatest efficiency. We do not have the time to seek a diagnosis. Our intelligence capability is in need of emergency treatment.

Fourth, blue-ribbon commission seats must be filled with credible candidates. Sufficient staff must be hired. Security clearances must be conducted properly.

If such a commission were announced tomorrow, it would not be operative for several months. The congressional intelligence committees may be finished with their work before the commission is fully impaneled.

Lastly, a commission is not likely to be formed without executive branch acquiescence. These types of commissions are normally created via presidential order. Panel members are usually appointed by the White House. If the president remains opposed to the idea, the only recourse would be for legislation to be passed by the House and Senate, but it would have to have enough votes to survive a presidential veto.

So, with impediments to the blue-ribbon approach such as these, will supporters be deterred? Not likely. More talk by Democrat surrogates demanding a blue-ribbon panel is undoubtedly on its way.

Republicans will tell us that there are committees in Congress that are analyzing and evaluating the situation, just as after Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.

Either way, history will repeat itself. Congressional committees do just as good a job of not getting to the truth as blue-ribbon commissions.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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