The mixed signals emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill regarding the intelligence bill are positively dizzying. Case in point: Wednesday's William Safire column and today's David Broder column.
Safire argues that conservatives in the House were saving the administration, the Senate and the country from a potentially counterproductive intelligence reorganization bill that has been forced down their throats. Leaving aside his gratuitous and false characterization of the 9/11 Commission as a "private lobbying juggernaut," his chronology is highly selective. A more complete picture demonstrates the administration's fundamental ambivalence towards any reform, not just the apparent rapidity of this one.
First, the principal reason for the rush at the end of the 108th was that the work of the commission had been delayed by the administration for so long. If the commission had been named soon after 9/11 as many had asked rather than more than a year later, and if the administration had cooperated fully and promptly with all requests for documents rather than stonewalling, the report would have been completed much earlier. To claim as Safire does that conservatives were simply staving off a blind rush to reform bespeaks passive-aggressive politics at its most cynical.
Second, along those same lines, if the administration took intelligence reform seriously, then it would have been working on a plan concurrently with the commission. That, too, would have lessened the rush. Instead, it is clear now that the only plans they have for "reform" are to increase the number of intelligence officers by many thousand and to force out top officials who disagree with the White House.
Third, the speed with which this bill has traveled is no greater than with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was a far larger task than this one. Certainly we didn't hear the administration or these same House conservatives complaining then.
We can count on Broder for a more balanced version. The ambivalence in the House was a direct result of the contradictory signals coming out of the White House and the Pentagon about the desirability of reform. This seems less like an administration that welcomes healthy debate, as Safire puts it, than one which cannot bring itself to say publicly whether it is fully behind or opposed to intelligence reform.
The president said he wants to spend political capital. With this kind of fence-sitting, internal conflict and wasted effort, he'll expend it all before he knows it. He's hardly inspired confidence in members of his own party in Congress.