While the news media fixed on the firefight between the Bush White House and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, there's a deeper theme in this week's 9/11 commission hearings: Call it un-Church imperative.
Sen. Frank Church's scorching 1973-76 investigations of US intelligence operations changed the thinking of a generation. Starting with the CIA role in the downfall of Chile's Salvador Allende, the hearings targeted international "dirty tricks." Today, instead of asking why an assassination was attempted (against Fidel Castro), panels are asking why one didn't succeed (against Osama bin Laden). The difference stems partly from the 9/11 attacks themselves, which galvanized Americans against terrorists - and in favor of using stronger means of stopping them. But it also reflects a slower evolution of national opinion.
In the mid-'70s, packed hearing rooms heard of botched attempts on the life of Cuba's Castro that ranged from exploding cigars to acid in his shoes. In the wake of the just-completed Watergate hearings, the cautions stuck. At the end, assassination was no longer viewed as a legitimate tool of foreign policy, and the CIA was no longer considered a top career path for the "best and brightest."
Asked why US officials seemed cautious "to a fault" in going after bin Laden, 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean recalled his days as a student at Princeton University: "The CIA was not a very good thing to go into for a while. When I was in college, I think the guy who recruited for the CIA was the dean of the college. It was a very prestigious organization to go into. Some years later, the CIA was kicked off campus and most good campuses didn't even allow them to recruit on campus because of the kind of reputation they got after some of those [Church] hearings."
Critics at the time dubbed the Church Committee hearings "potentially dangerous" to the nation's security. "The repercussions of the Church Committee's misguided zeal are still being felt today," wrote former Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas in his 1991 memoir.
That legacy was everywhere in evidence in this week's 9/11 hearings. Instead of being called to justify a botched international operation, the heads of the State Department, Defense Department, and Central Intelligence Agency in the Clinton and Bush administrations were called to account for a failure to pull the trigger.
"Listening to the 9/11 hearings, it sounded as if commissioners would have been happy if someone in an intelligence agency had sent Osama bin Laden an exploding cigar or found someone to put prussic acid in his shoes, whereas in 1975 or '76, that was looked at with horror," says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
He adds, "9/11 changed everything. Now the fact is that we want to have as few constraints as possible on the destruction on foreign enemies."
The change doesn't mean Americans no longer feel cautious about how much leeway to give to intelligence and police operations. Witness the deep public ambivalence over the Patriot Act's expansion of law-enforcement powers after 9/11. But today a majority of Americans view the CIA positively in its antiterror role, whereas only 32 percent had a positive view of the agency in a Harris poll 30 years ago.
Today "the CIA doesn't have this negative association. It's just a question of did they do a good enough job," says Steven Kull of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.
This week, pressed on why they had not moved to take out bin Laden, officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations cited a lack of "actionable intelligence," but - as emphatically - the lack of an "actionable" culture on Capitol Hill.
Former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke amplified the point in testimony this week. Many CIA senior managers, he said, had been "dragged up into this room and others and berated for failed covert action activities." The lesson that hit home was that "covert action is a very dangerous thing that can damage the CIA as much as it can damage the enemy," he added.
After the Church hearings, the burden of proof for US intelligence and defense analysts rose significantly. A culture of extreme caution set in, according to testimony and reports to the 9/11 commission this week.
"Whatever analysts might say privately, their written work was conservatively phrased and caveated. Evidence was catalogued in neutral detail," concludes a report by the 9/11 Commission staff released Tuesday. As a result, "the time lag between terrorist act and any definitive attribution grew to months, then years, as the evidence was compiled."
That caution in the intelligence agencies moved all the way up to the Cabinet level, officials testified. Before 9/11, "most people thought we had made up the issue of terrorism," said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, responding to a question on why the US had not pushed for military action against Bin Laden.
In addition, intense criticism of President Clinton's 1998 strikes against al Qaeda training camps and the Shifa chemical plant in Sudan "made it more difficult to get approval for follow-up attacks on al Qaeda," writes Clarke in his new book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. A majority of Americans approved the attacks at the time, but they generated controversy nonetheless.
In parallel testimony this week, William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld, Secretaries of Defense in the Clinton and Bush administrations, emphasized that there was no way to sustain military operations against bin Laden without the support of Congress, and, pre-9/11, that support was not at all likely. Had the Defense Department asked to invade Afghanistan, it would not have been taken seriously before 9/11, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told commissioners. Asked to comment on this point, Secretary Albright said, simply: "I agree."
Some experts worry that attitudes have swung too far from the era, not long ago, when presidential policy prohibited assassinations. But if this week's hearings are an indication, the mood is swinging away from caution. "We're back to plots to kill foreign leaders, and intelligence agencies are criticized if they are no aggressive enough in doing that," says Baker. "It's a cautionary tale to people in intelligence."