Intelligence under investigation

The presidentially appointed independent commission is a time-tested tool for taking the heat off the CIA and the administration. It hasn't always worked.

In 1975, President Ford named Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to head a prestigious commission to investigate domestic surveillance of antiwar activists by the CIA, which had been uncovered by Seymour Hersh of The New York Times. That inquiry was superseded by Senate and House investigations that uncovered a litany of larger CIA improprieties from drug experiments on unwitting subjects to assassination conspiracies targeting Fidel Castro and others.

In 1986, President Reagan named former Sen. John Tower to head a commission to investigate the so-called Iran-contra scandal. That involved the illegal sale of missiles to Iran in exchange for Iranian help in winning the freedom of two American hostages in Lebanon. The project was initially in the hands of the CIA. The Tower report was soon upstaged by televised hearings of a joint congressional committee that, among other things, made Oliver North a national figure. That was when President Reagan, speaking in the passive voice, said that "mistakes were made."

Now President Bush, who initially rejected the idea of an independent commission to investigate flawed intelligence on Iraqi weaponry, has abruptly changed his mind and announced a nine-member commission to investigate CIA misjudgments in the broader context of proliferation. The reasons for creating the commission are not hard to discern.

First, the commission will operate under a mandate stressing the future rather than the past. Second, it will help to blunt criticism by Democratic candidates and lawmakers that the president is withholding the truth about what motivated the invasion of Iraq. Third, the commission is to report after the November election, which may help to take the issue off the campaign griddle.

And there is always the hope that Mr. Bush will enjoy the good fortune of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and be completely exonerated by an outside panel of the charge of cooking the books to justify an invasion.

But good fortune for Mr. Bush is not necessarily good luck for CIA director George Tenet, a Clinton appointee who was until recently popular in the Bush White House.

Departing arms inspector David Kay, who himself was hired by the CIA, testified on Capitol Hill that "we were almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons programs.

Although it might help his case, the president seems reluctant to lay blame on Mr. Tenet. He may need Tenet's help as the inquiries grind on.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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