Department of ‘Cover Your Ass’

It may be the best barometer available to gauge our risk of terrorist attack: the degree to which politicians scramble to cover their asses. If so, head for the hills, because there isn’t a bare butt left in town.

First, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff famously confessed his “gut feeling” that we’re due for another attack. Then, last week, the U.S. intelligence community released the latest National Intelligence Estimate, stating that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the ungoverned tribal regions of northwest Pakistan and is preparing to strike. Finally, today, a late-scheduled joint session of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees was called to examine the NIE’s findings.

For a moment, there was a sense of anticipation that something new would be revealed, some light shed on the degree of the terrorist threat or the current disposition and capability of the enemy. Reporters climbed over each other to reach their seats along the back wall of the hearing room. A capacity crowd overflowed into two additional rooms equipped with closed-circuit TVs. A panel of witnesses from the Defense Department and the National Counterterrorism Center assembled at a long table under harsh lights. Then the hearing began…and the anticipation quickly faded to boredom.

Reporters scribbled half-heartedly in their notebooks, if only to keep up appearances, but there was very little hard information on offer. Even the congressmen looked uninterested; at one point, almost half of them were cradling their chins and staring off into space. Perhaps they were just waiting for the closed session (scheduled to follow the public one), but it seems doubtful that the classified version would be much better. The take-aways:

  • Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself along Pakistan’s northwest frontier.
  • Osama Bin Laden is probably there.
  • Al Qaeda’s “safe haven” in Pakistan is troubling, but there’s not much we can do about it.
  • There’s no evidence that al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan are cooperating with insurgents in Iraq to attack the United States.
  • (Note: This last point doesn’t quite mesh with what Bush has been saying this week, but, hey, he’s never been one to let facts get in the way of a preconceived notion.)

    Despite the lack of new information, the congressmen seemed eager to express publicly their outrage that more was not being done to disrupt al Qaeda. One even told of how reading the NIE was a wake-up call that “set my hair on fire.” Is it summer 2001 all over again? Who knows, but with all the political cover being taken, it seems that Chertoff’s gut feeling is spreading.