I put Middle Earth Journal in hiatus in May of 2008 and moved to Newshoggers.
I temporarily reopened Middle Earth Journal when Newshoggers shut it's doors but I was invited to Participate at The Moderate Voice so Middle Earth Journal is once again in hiatus.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Oversight or collecting scalps?

One of the things the voters wanted when they gave Democrats the wheel of congress was oversight. The Democrats have the numbers and the subpoena power to carry out that oversight responsibility. There is a danger that could turn into a frenzy to collect scalps which would be a danger to the country and the Democratic Party itself. In a Washington Post commentary, Send in the Subpoenas, Ron Suskind has some good advice.
The new Democratic Congress may well come down to a series of confrontations between the competing urges to investigate and to lead. Between delving into past wrongdoings and building consensus on how to proceed in Iraq. Between, in a sense, the Democratic Party's show horses and its pit bulls.
The danger is there may be some who after six years of Bush administration atrocities may be driven to look back simply to collect scalps and not as a way to move forward. In my heart a may fall into the former category but in my mind I know this is a bad move that could threaten the future. As Suskind says:
Democrats should be able to both investigate and lead, but it will take an embrace of Republican-style discipline (hardly a Democratic strong suit), an appreciation for deferred gratification (think inauguration day, January 2009) and a shrewd division of labor between pit bulls and show horses.
So what to do?
Here, then, is a playbook for the Democrats -- one that keeps the show horses preening, lets the pit bulls attack, helps the party figure out how to use its new subpoena power to maximum effect and encourages the sort of reality-based disclosures that all citizens, regardless of party, deserve.

First, the Democrats must broker a separation of powers. The show horses are their putative candidates for president, especially in the Senate, and the party's leadership in both chambers. Keep them above the fray, focusing on proposals for the future and the new "action plans," especially in foreign policy. But unleash the pit bulls: the committee chairs, their seconds and investigators who will dig relentlessly, identify targets and thus, inevitably, leave themselves vulnerable in their next reelection campaigns.

I've spent the past several years investigating various aspects of the Bush administration -- including economic policy and the battle against terrorism -- so I know there are so very many targets for the Democrats to choose from. However, there is not unlimited public patience for such efforts. The Democrats should therefore start with the freshest data: Exit polls from the midterm elections showed that concern about Iraq was matched by broader concerns about terrorism and, surprisingly, government corruption.
While the lies and deceptions that led up to the Iraq war are a tempting target energy policy and how it ties into the Iraq war may prove to be the most effective investigations.
The vast U.S. energy industry may be the ripest target for a corruption investigation. When Vice President Cheney's energy task force was meeting in early 2001 -- meetings whose secrecy Cheney has managed to protect against legal challenge -- the goal of U.S. energy independence was barely an afterthought. Now, with the United States mired in the affairs of petro-dictatorships in the Middle East, even the president has emphasized the need to cure our addiction to oil.

Studied inaction on this front stems from the coziness between the administration and big oil -- a relationship that affects the global warming debate, Iraq, gas prices and oil company profits. Investigations into that relationship are a sure win for the Democrats. Just lining up oil company executives under the hot lights -- much like the seven tobacco company chief executives were lined up in 1994, looking like gray-suited deer -- creates the image, if not necessarily the fact, of activist government. (Suggested witnesses: Lee Raymond, chief executive of Exxon Mobil until this year; Spencer Abraham, former energy secretary; Cheney; and David Addington, Cheney's deputy on many energy matters.)

While some inquests set the table for responsible policy -- much as hearings on pollution helped spur 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act -- most are designed to strengthen accountability and deter future perfidy. The administration's repeated practice of strong-arming experts who stray off message makes for a bevy of high-intensity witnesses. They include global warming experts in various departments as well as Richard Foster, the Health and Human Services accountant who was threatened with dismissal for trying to alert Congress about the deceptive cost estimates on the Medicare prescription drug program. Hearings would show who gave the order to mislead the public on these issues of pressing concern -- a proper investigation for any Congress. (Suggested witnesses: Tom Scully, Foster's boss; James Hansen of NASA; Rick Piltz, formerly of the U.S. Global Change Research Program; and former Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman.)

All this comes before the Democrats even get to Iraq and the manipulation of prewar intelligence, the botched postwar planning and the myriad mistakes made after the invasion.

Oddly, Iraq may be the last place that Democratic investigators want to go, precisely because it is the arena from which the party's key above-the-fray "action plan" must emerge. So much is known from this year's host of Iraq books and stream of media disclosures that hearings would mostly unearth common knowledge -- a patience-trying prospect for a war-fatigued public.
Secrets - Secrets - Secrets
Unfortunately, as I've encountered repeatedly in my own reporting, discernible reality in the war on terrorism is mostly locked in a vault marked "classified." There is no realm in which more misinformation has been passed to the public, a result of the creative license that a largely secret war affords this -- or any -- government.

A mission of the Democratic Congress that would please both the gods of politics and of public purpose (they don't always intersect) may be to drag that war from the shadows. But it will be difficult. Though members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees know from interrogation and wiretap scandals that they are ill-equipped to oversee such wide swaths of classified activities, the administration's position on keeping secrets secret is strong. Virtually no one now in the government advocates disclosure -- the default setting is to classify everything.

Democratic-run congressional committees could push for some modicum of transparency in public hearings. Start with whether any Americans who are clearly uninvolved in terrorist activities have been, or are being, wiretapped. The list is long, and addressing it would encourage judicial oversight of that program -- as well as various financial surveillance programs -- rather than keeping it caught in partisan gridlock between executive and legislative branches. (Suggested witnesses: Michael V. Hayden, formerly National Security Agency director, now head of the CIA; Robert S. Mueller III, FBI director; and Charles T. Fote, former chief executive of First Data Corp.)

The list of areas crying out for inquiry is quite long as well. The "war on terror" is a vast undiscovered country. The erosion of global U.S. human intelligence assets since the start of the Iraq war, for example, is harrowing. The fraying threads of international cooperation (as anti-Americanism becomes a path to political success throughout the world) correspond to a dizzying growth of self-activated terrorist cells. And it gets worse. A September 2003 meeting of all pertinent top officials in government, including the president and vice president, discussed how suspected terrorists, identified by the CIA, were lost by the FBI once they entered the United States -- even after the 9/11 attacks. The heated exchanges that day, and numerous similar ones over the past three years, suggest a breakdown in process that will surely be discussed by some commission after the next terrorist attack. (Suggested witnesses: Cheney, Mueller and FBI counterterrorism chief Phil Mudd, formerly at the CIA.)

And while all this proceeds, what about those show horses? Well, they'll steer clear of the hearings and, as one senator recently quipped, "stay away from past-tense words like 'woulda, coulda, or shoulda' " as they develop their action plans. But once the 2008 campaign season heats up, they'll choose among the coming year's subpoena fest for the sharpest disclosures, and wield them in electoral battle.

Or so the playbook reads.

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