Archive for Friday, May 12, 2006

Divisions may doom U.S.

May 12, 2006

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The parallels are striking - and scary. Coming up on five years since 9-11, neither Washington nor New York has its act together.

Like an earthquake's aftershock, the fallout of Osama bin Laden's attack has revealed potentially fatal cracks in American society.

The chaos involving our intelligence operations and the rebuilding at Ground Zero are both deeply troubling. We are vulnerable to an attack even as we argue over how to respond to the last one.

In both cases, the national interest has been overshadowed by turf battles, partisan politics and private agendas.

While the failure of the Bush administration to untangle the jurisdictional disputes over intelligence is the ultimate risky business, the growing bitterness at Ground Zero has turned a symbol of unity into an ugly struggle over real estate and dollars.

As a nation and a city, we need to get our priorities straight. That the horror of 9-11 is still working its way through our collective psyche is not surprising. What is surprising is that we haven't settled on a clear response, either to our danger or our loss.

Given the failure of the CIA and law enforcement to connect the dots about a terror attack in this country, then the botched issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, intelligence reform should have been job one. That it wasn't, and as a result we now don't know the extent of Iran's nuclear program, is outrageous and terrifying.

The bipartisan 9-11 commission did good work, but simply calling for an intelligence czar was a principle, not a plan. That Bush reluctantly adopted the idea compounded the complexity. His appointment of Porter Goss to head the diminished CIA achieved nothing except waste 18 months, and now the agency is in the political crosshairs again. And despite John Negroponte's role as intelligence czar, he's still fighting to establish himself as the center of spook activity. That 80 percent of the $44 billion budget still goes to Pentagon-led intelligence agencies shows that our spy system remains a house divided.

Those divisions go a long way toward explaining some of the concerns about Michael Hayden's replacing Goss. An Air Force general, Hayden has alarmed many who think the military should have less influence, not more, over the CIA.

But more important than whether Hayden wears a uniform is whether Negroponte or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld controls the intelligence operation. So far, Bush has failed to settle that battle, and Congress hasn't helped. That's the real issue, and until it's resolved, disputes and dysfunction are inevitable. And a new terror attack is more likely to succeed.

A similar failure to set clear priorities is the root of the mess at Ground Zero. That the Memorial Foundation board is bucking Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg by halting fund-raising until design and cost issues are resolved is merely a symptom.

The real problem is that the memorial, which should have been the heart of that sacred ground, has become an afterthought. Only the spiraling cost, now set at nearly $1 billion, seems to have focused attention on the need for changes.

Pataki, Bloomberg and Port Authority and New Jersey officials proudly declare they are working together - a tacit admission they weren't before. That's a form of malpractice that's less lethal, but no less serious, than what is happening in Washington.

Because we are the world's lone superpower, only Americans can defeat America. Sadly, that seems to be what we're doing.

Michael Goodwin is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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