Back to Baghdad

Last Saturday was hot, and the smoky horizon filled with portents of fire, but the artificial climate inside the Beverly Hills Hilton’s Grand Ballroom was set to “chill” as a pianist tinkled out “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “California Here I Come.” An hour before and a few blocks away, a memorial service had concluded for New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane at a chapel of the Westwood Mormon Temple. Kane’s death from leukemia sounded yet another knell for an era of American rock & roll, nonconformity and reckless excess. I still remember a passionate argument in my J-school class at Cal Berkeley, 30 years ago, between a feather-haired student and a doctrinaire Trotskyite; the latter wore a Levi’s jacket nail-studded to read “New York Dolls” and shouted that glamour and gossip were more real to him than politics or straight news.

The Hilton’s 80 or so brunchers, who included a few local mayors, an archbishop and Stanley Scheinbaum, were planets removed from Kane’s old world and had come to hear Dianne Feinstein. The California senator was here to talk to members of Town Hall Los Angeles and some Fairfax High School students about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s July 9 report. The 430-page document, though heavily striped by a censor’s black marker, is a scalding and scolding appraisal of the National Intelligence Estimate — the CIA-edited disaster novel about Iraq’s nuclear- and biological-weapons capabilities that the Bush administration used as an excuse to invade Iraq.

The critical report that was issued by the committee that Feinstein sits on details the NIE’s paranoid “groupthink” and logic pirouettes, which coincidentally matched every comma of the administration’s pronouncements on Iraq. Yet the report blandly concludes there is no evidence of White House pressure in the intelligence community’s doomsday predictions.

Feinstein hinted that she wasn’t so sure about that “no pressure” claim and that somewhere down the road this may have to be looked into. She hadn’t come to attack the administration, though, or explain why the directors of the CIA and FBI weren’t sacked (or, for that matter, arrested) on September 12, 2001. Instead, she was here to promote her idea of appointing a Cabinet-level intelligence czar who would act as an arbiter for the conflicting agendas of the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies. This would be a man or woman immune to any kind of White House pressure, a person whose dispassionate analyses of data would cull truth from propaganda, honest proposals from mere wish lists of special-interest groups. In other words, the kind of objectivity Gale Norton brings to the Department of Interior when she studies a logging-industry request to clear-cut a forest, the type of Solomon-like fairness displayed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mike Leavitt whenever he shreds lab reports on global warming.

A young woman in the audience immediately saw the danger of Feinstein’s proposal and, during the Q&A afterward, asked the senator what would prevent all the partisan prejudices of the various intelligence agencies from simply becoming concentrated and frozen into policy by such a Cabinet department.

“The president is the owner of intelligence,” Feinstein reminded the young woman. “However, [such an] individual has to be confirmed by us, and I think that our committee’s getting pretty tough.” At these last words she smiled faintly.

 

“Pretty tough” is not exactly a phrase used to describe the Congress or the Democratic Party these days, at least by people of the same generation as Feinstein’s questioner. Nevertheless, while the senator called for jobs to be brought into Sadr City (as though she were campaigning in Watts) and sparked appreciative applause at the mere mention of Israel’s apartheid wall, about 100 people, mostly half the age of Feinstein’s listeners, were engaged in a giddy, frantic bake sale in Silver Lake to raise money for John Kerry. Most people I spoke to there admitted to an Anyone-But-Bush fear, as though dreading another four years of that “owner of intelligence.”

Feinstein is no fool, but she’s no liberal either, and has made a career of disappointing many of these same Democrats. She may be against amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage, but she’s introduced equally opportunistic legislation to amend it for the sake of victims of violent crimes. She supports gun control, but is also a death-penalty advocate, voted for the Patriot Act, sponsored a noxious “anti-gang” bill and begged President Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act against longshore workers two years ago. If there was one glimmer of reason in her Saturday talk, it came when she briefly mentioned the “tens of billions of dollars for black budgets” — the secret funding for the very security agencies criticized in her committee’s report. “This shadowy world needs re-examination,” she concluded, somewhat tantalizingly.

After Feinstein’s speech, the press was moved to a lobby, where reporters vied for her attention like puppies at a pound — before a KABC-TV crew took her away for a one-on-one. She was asked about Iran and repeated the president’s line about the unacceptable idea of that country owning nukes. I asked her about stories that began circulating in the British media in May, to the effect that Iran may have deliberately manipulated Washington (through expatriate “informants” cited by the discredited NIE) into going to war with Iraq and removing Tehran’s old nemesis, Saddam Hussein.

“I haven’t heard that one,” Feinstein replied, smiling the way she had when she described her committee as “tougher.”