If you're going to blame George, make it Tenet, not Bush

By Edward I. Koch
Tuesday, February 2, 2004

Following is an advance release of Ed Koch's Bloomberg Radio Commentary for Feb. 7

History will show that George W. Bush was correct in going to war against the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein. The fact that the President relied on what now appears to be faulty intelligence reports indicating that Iraq possessed biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction does not alter this conclusion.

The President acted because he decided America could not afford to take the chance that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but might give them to terrorists. Just imagine what the American public would have done if the C.I.A. had been right and President Bush had ignored their warnings. Imagine the consequences if Iraq had used a weapon of mass destruction against the U.S. or one of its allies. It has been observed that such a weapon capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people could be buried in a single suitcase or shipping container.

American intelligence was coordinated by C.I.A. director George Tenet, who was originally appointed by President Bill Clinton. David Kay, former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, appeared before a U.S. Senate panel last week and testified, “If I had been there, presented what I have seen as the record of the intelligence estimates, I probably would have come to -- not probably -- I would have come to the same conclusion that the political leaders did.” David Kay summed it up correctly when he said, according to The New York Times, “I think from the record, it’s the intelligence community that abused the President.” Nevertheless, there are those who, for partisan political advantage, now seek to unfairly blame the President for the poor information he received from the intelligence community.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, to his discredit, has said, “Many of us feel that the evidence so far leads only to one conclusion, that what has happened was more than a failure of intelligence; it was the result of manipulation of the intelligence to justify a decision to go to war." But Senator Kennedy doesn’t specify how the intelligence was supposedly manipulated.

The same kind of false accusation was made by the BBC against Prime Minister Blair. A senior Justice, Lord Hutton, was appointed to hold hearings on the various charges leveled against the Prime Minister by the BBC and others. Lord Hutton’s report, which was made public last week, found in favor of Tony Blair and his government and against those who had falsely charged them with doctoring or “sex[ing] up” the information provided by MI6, the British intelligence agency.

Tony Blair has also defended himself with exceptional skill and eloquence during what is known in Great Britain as Question Time. The Speaker of the House of Commons alternately recognizes opponents and supporters of the prime minister, giving them a chance to pose their questions directly to the prime minister, who responds immediately.

When I was a member of the New York City Council in 1967-68, I proposed to the Lindsay administration that it consider supporting legislation to create a Question Time for the mayor before the City Council. The Lindsay administration opposed the proposal as did the Council leadership, and I did not pursue it. I believe the British parliamentary practice should be used in both the Congress and the City Council. I have no doubt that watching Question Time on live television would ultimately create a far larger audience for both the Council and the Congress than that which exists for “Sex In The City,” which is ending its run and needs a successor.

Many opponents of President Bush undoubtedly believe he isn’t up to handling this kind of direct questioning. I think they are wrong and would be in for a surprise if he is challenged to respond. But irrespective of his verbal skills, democracy would be well served if Question Time became part of American political life.

Whether or not it does, there is no question that an independent blue-ribbon commission must be appointed to examine all of the security agencies — C.I.A., F.B.I. and any other agency providing information on major national security matters. Everything relating to Iraq should be investigated by a panel that has the power of subpoena, and which has the mission of reporting publicly on why the information provided to the President and Congress was so inaccurate.

I believe the President was wrong to resist the appointment of such a blue-ribbon committee. He has apparently reconsidered his position and is now willing to make the appointment by executive order. The Congress must decide whether an executive order is the way to go or whether a joint Congressional Resolution approved by the President providing for the appointments is preferable and will ensure non-partisanship. I favor the latter.

Many people, myself included, still believe that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction will ultimately be found in Iraq or elsewhere, having been shipped to other countries such as Iran or Syria. In the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq, knowing it had lost the war, flew its entire fixed wing air force to Iran where it still remains today rusting on Iranian airfields.

We spend about $30 billion annually on the federal security agencies that protect the U.S. from all enemies, foreign and domestic. We simply have not gotten our money’s worth. Even if Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are found tomorrow, the investigation into our intelligence failures should proceed. George Tenet should have been asked to resign after 9-11, because the greatest terrorist attack in America’s history occurred on his watch. The case for his removal is now stronger than ever.

Edward I. Koch, who served as mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, is a partner in the law firm of Bryan Cave.

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