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THE NATION | NEWS ANALYSIS

Right Leads Assault on CIA, FBI at Bush's Expense

Intelligence: Leading conservatives drive for reform after missteps, complicating the White House response.

June 06, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Friendly fire from fellow Republicans is looming as an increasing risk for the White House as Congress gears up its investigations of government intelligence failures before Sept. 11.

In recent weeks, the sharpest public criticism of the CIA--and especially the FBI--has come not from Democrats but from three Republican senators: Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. At the same time, several leading conservatives have denounced the new FBI guidelines for initiating terrorist investigations as an infringement on civil liberties. And the Wall Street Journal editorial page, a leading conservative voice, has urged FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to resign.

None of these views appear to represent majority opinion among Republicans. But they greatly complicate the political challenge facing the White House as the House and Senate intelligence committees continue their joint investigation and the Senate Judiciary Committee joins the fray with hearings on the FBI today.

Many analysts believe that the prominence of these GOP critics will make it more difficult for the White House to paint the congressional inquiries as a partisan exercise. Indeed, though Vice President Dick Cheney last month forcefully brushed back Democratic leaders who questioned the administration's performance before Sept. 11, the White House hasn't publicly or privately pressured the GOP critics to lower the volume, administration and congressional sources say.

"I haven't had one bit of conversation or pressure or anything regarding that," Shelby said.

For now, key Democrats appear willing to let the Republican mavericks take the point in the escalating political skirmish over the FBI and CIA. "I am more than comfortable letting Republicans stake out this turf and letting us come in behind them," said one senior Senate Democratic strategist. "It is just much, much safer. Frankly, the attacks ... are much more credible to the public coming from Republicans."

Appearances by matched pairs of Democratic and Republican senators on network talk shows Sunday crystallized the contrast. The two Democrats leading the main congressional investigations--Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham of Florida and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont--expressed strong support for Mueller, President Bush's choice to run the FBI.

"I have complete confidence in the director," Leahy said. "He's the last person that should resign."

But Shelby, appearing with Graham, and Specter, appearing with Leahy, pointedly refused to second those endorsements. "I believe he's got a lot to learn," Shelby said.

Grassley, who had previously been supportive, offered Mueller a shorter rope in his comments: "I'm willing to give ... [him] a little longer to see if he can make the changes that need to be made within the FBI."

Mueller does not appear in any imminent danger of losing his job. GOP insiders say he still has strong backing in the White House. And one GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee said no other Republican on the panel is nearly as cool toward the director as are Specter and Grassley.

"The general feeling among the rest of the Republicans on the committee is he's a solid guy," said the senator, who asked not to be identified.

The Republican challenges to the intelligence community's performance draw momentum from ideological and personal currents.

In part, the accusations of FBI incompetence and the resistance to new FBI investigative guidelines from groups such as the American Conservative Union merely continue a striking ideological trend of the 1990s.

With the Cold War over, conservatives long suspicious of federal activism on issues such as education and the environment have grown increasingly hostile toward expanded federal law enforcement authority as well. The FBI's roles in the violent confrontations with a white supremacist at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas, intensified that impulse. The two incidents "created an institutional distrust of the FBI by the right that has never really abated," said a former Clinton Justice Department official.

Meanwhile, all three of the GOP senators most critical of the intelligence community's performance before Sept. 11 have been longtime scourges of the agencies.

As the New Republic magazine pointed out in a recent profile, Shelby has been in conflict with the CIA since 1998. He was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, and the agency refused to cooperate with his investigation of the transfer of U.S. missile technology to China.

Specter, a former Philadelphia district attorney, has been banging heads with the FBI since Ruby Ridge. He led a harshly critical Judiciary Committee investigation of the shootings in that case, questioned the FBI's actions in Waco and proposed legislation to create an independent inspector general to investigate misconduct at the bureau.

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