The Whitewash Commission

Some of the media are politely calling it an inspired choice. But does anybody really think we will learn anything we didn’t already know from the commission to be headed by Henry Kissinger to look into the intelligence and enforcement failures that led up to the terrorist attacks of September 11?

For that matter, does anybody believe the commission won’t be fairly active in trying to prevent too much information leaking out to the general public that was so badly served by the government that was supposed to be protecting it?


All right, President Bush delivered a public admonition to the commission – whose formation he originally resisted – to "follow all the facts, wherever they lead." But the appointment of the 79-year-old Kissinger, who has begun to look and sound like a caricature of himself in recent media appearances, virtually assures that the commission is unlikely to shake up the government’s intelligence community, let alone to recommend anything resembling serious reconsideration of U.S. foreign policy.

I wasn’t expecting much from the commission anyway. But putting Henry the K in charge of it is really a shame. The intelligence services and U.S. policy could use at least some minor questioning if it’s too much to hope for a major jolt to the posteriors.

Kissinger is unquestionably intelligent and experienced. But he has put his abilities at the service of the U.S. powers-that-be almost his entire life. While he has offered a mild demurrer from time to time when asked about current U.S. policy – especially when it was being run by the Democratic branch of the Government Party – he is the quintessential Washington insider, so much a fixture of the foreign policy establishment as to be almost its embodiment.

Even when some critics of the apparently forthcoming war on Iraq were claiming Kissinger as a fellow-traveler, a closer reading of his statements showed that he was questioning tactics, not strategy. With Kissinger it’s never whether there ought to be an American empire, but marginal questions about whether this or that mission can actually be accomplished, or whether the most efficacious means have been chosen.

Kissinger is intelligent enough and informed enough to know that winning in Iraq might not be easy – especially insofar as the definition of "winning" is still so ill-defined – but he’s not about to break ranks in a definitive way. He’s made and continues to make a nice living and a nice reputation as a courtier in the imperial palace, and that’s simply the path he has chosen.


I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call Kissinger a proven war criminal, as Christopher Hitchens, who has been relatively establishmentarian since the 9/11 attacks, did in Slate recently. But there’s little question that his attitude about power is that it should be used – preferably intelligently and to a good purpose as defined by his current conception of American interests, but used fairly often. The idea of cutting back on U.S. interests and commitments – except as a tactical maneuver or as a concession to facts on the ground that make decisive use of power impractical for the moment – simply doesn’t seem to be in his line of vision.

I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more noise about the likelihood of serious conflicts of interest that would prevent a genuinely candid assessment of U.S. failures. Many of the news stories announcing his appointment did mention that Kissinger and Associates has business relationships with major U.S. corporations, such as H.J. Heinz, Arco, Merck, American Express and J.P. Morgan-Chase. Few mentioned his long-standing ties to countries like Saudi Arabia and China.

So how likely is it that a commission headed by this man will recommend a serious restructuring of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia, or note that China might have long-term interests that are not necessarily in harmony with American interests or ideals? Pretty slight.


This commission could have used a knowledgeable outsider with little or nothing to lose and no particular personal interests at stake. It is, after all, investigating the most massive and catastrophic failure of the U.S. government to perform its most important and justifiable task – protecting the American people from foreign adversaries and enemies – in recent memory.

That said, I confess that I have had a hard time coming up with possible candidates. Leaving aside the fantasy that this president might have appointed someone like the Cato Institute’s Ted Carpenter or the IPS’s Sanho Tree, not many come to mind. The closest I came to a feasible candidate from whom there might have been a possibility of something other than power-justifying boilerplate was former Secretary of State George Shultz. He has shown a modicum of independence on the drug war and he is ensconced at Stanford’s Hoover Institution rather than running a consulting firm. But he might have been reluctant to do the kind of fearless, thoroughgoing inquiry the scope of the failure really demands.


For better or worse, we’ll probably have to rely on independent critics, probably without the backing of a major think-tank, let alone a pile of taxpayers’ money, to do genuinely critical inquiries. Fortunately, there are plenty of leads.

A joint congressional committee did undertake some preliminary investigative work. (In fact, the committee’s development of information about just how extensive the tragic failure had been prior to 9/11 probably convinced the Bush administration to drop its opposition to an "independent" commission, knowing it could finesse inquiry by appointing someone like Kissinger to sweep most of the inconvenient revelations under the rug.) Its work deserves more publicity and expanded inquiries.

For example, it has become reasonably clear that despite a certain amount of knowledge about the possibility of terrorists using planes as weapons, the intelligence community did little or no analysis of this type of threat. Why not? Was it simply bureaucratic lassitude, or were there other reasons?

The CIA warned as early as 1998 that bin Laden and al-Qaida might pose a significant threat to U.S. interests. But there was no significant shift of resources or personnel into counterterrorism efforts either by the FBI or the CIA, despite some increased funding? Why not? Was this simply bureaucratic inertia following good intentions, or were the 1998 warnings simply a cover-your-butt-in-case-it-happened publicity stunt about potential problems which the intelligence people never had any intention of taking really seriously?


Perhaps the most serious and least likely to be corrected problem seems to have been fragmentation of effort. Large blocks of information about potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil seem to have been available. There was "chatter" about using airplanes at least as early as 1994. But bits and pieces of information were held by the 14 known agencies laughingly called the "intelligence community," and little or none of it was shared. So nobody could put the big picture together.

All these agencies have traditionally been intensely jealous of their turf and suspicious of their supposed "partners" in other agencies. They have been infighting for decades. Despite some brave efforts by former company men to give them credit, it is likely that the Soviet Union broke apart due to its internal contradictions and the surge of events rather than to anything the CIA or any other U.S. spy agency did to weaken the Evil Empire.

The creation of the vaunted Department of Homeland Security is unlikely to be the least bit helpful in this regard, despite brave promises shouted into the wind that they’re going to coordinate and get things right this time. They might even make the problems worse. If any of the overgrown bureaucratic mess was to be reformed, it should have been done before the agencies were folded into a new super-agency. Now the new head honcho will have a vested interest in protecting these agencies just as they are, and helping them grow, preferably without too much accountability or serious questions about whether they are actually accomplishing anything.


Then there’s the question of Saudi Arabia. Whether or not the little princess turns out to have knowingly given money to people who were known to have terrorist sympathies, there’s little question that the Saudi regime (more like a family business than a government) has aided and abetted extremism and to some extent terrorism in numerous indirect and direct ways.

Everybody has noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The Saudi regime has also financed a vast international network to promote its state religion, Wahabbism, a brand of Islamic extremism that breeds terrorists and justifies their actions.

The Saud family has financed this reprehensible doctrine for a number of reasons, including keeping potential extremists in Saudi Arabia who might be less than entranced with the way the House of Saud spends oil money, under control by keeping them close. Now its actions have bitten the United States – not directly or purposely, perhaps – in ways that in a sane world would virtually demand a rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. We don’t need to go as far as the neocons and lust for a war to acknowledge that reconsideration is in order.

But most U.S. policymakers, from Dick Cheney to Colin Powell, have a cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, for a number of reasons. They have an interest in selling this financier of Wahabbism as a "moderate" Arab state. In part it’s because of the oil, of course. Most of our foreign policy establishment believes – or claims to believe – that by dominating the international extortion and price-fixing ring known as OPEC, the Saudis are contributing to world stability. And plenty of people in positions of influence in the United States have benefited handsomely by serving Saudi interests.

Clearly, the U.S.-Saudi relationship could use a fresh look. But Dr. Kissinger is hardly the man to lead the charge.

Nor is he the man to critique the larger policy of "benevolent intervention" and overseas military outposts that has done so much to create resentment, blowback and enemies around the world.

From Dubya’s perspective, then Henry the K was close to the ideal choice to lead this commission. Its staff (perhaps, as usual, more important than the principals) will no doubt develop lots of information, perhaps even some we hadn’t known before. But it won’t tease out any of the more interesting implications. It will be up to outside critics to mine the reports for interesting nuggets and the true implications.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).