he four senators I worked for taught me that the most important thing I could do as a national security staffer was to help them with their oversight responsibilities. That is, to find out what was really going on in the Defense Department behind the gloss of official testimony, the military services' sleek budget brochures, and officers' slick briefings on supposedly flawless weapon systems. That way, my bosses could ask the kind of questions at committee hearings that would prompt Defense witnesses to glance back at their staff for help and promise to provide complete answers-just as soon as they found out themselves.
On Feb. 13, I attended a Senate Armed Services Committee oversight hearing where Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified. Rumors were rife that day that war with Iraq was imminent. In that atmosphere, you'd think the oversight afterburners would be lit and the committee would be doing all kinds of things to find and address soft spots in our defenses that Pentagon officials had failed to address.
Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., kicked off the hearing at 9:35 a.m., declaring that American troops deserve Congress' support in the war, "and they will get it." Although Defense had not yet requested a penny for transport, ammunition or anything else for the war, he turned to the Navy shipbuilding budget, which, he said, "is increasing, but not as much as we would like to see it." War might have been looming, but the shipyard back home in Newport News, Va., needed even more dollars.
Then the committee's senior Democrat, Carl Levin, D-Mich., complained that the White House had misinformed him about how much information the CIA had given United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. A real issue, but these witnesses were from Defense, not the CIA or the White House.
Warner responded with a budget initiative-not for the war, but for the Armed Services Committee. Warner wanted the senators to OK the committee's budget for travel, hearings and staffers' pay.
At 9:56 a.m., it was Rumsfeld's turn. It took him 22 minutes to read his statement. Most of the senators weren't listening. Instead, they talked with each other or read what appeared to be their staffers' memos to figure out what questions to ask. The giveaway was that they periodically motioned to staffers to come over to explain things. After Rumsfeld finished reading, we learned what questions those memos had urged. First, Warner asked Myers whether U.S. forces were ready to fight in Iraq, Korea, and against terrorism at the same time. Myers responded, "Absolutely."
That was it: one question about combat readiness and one superficial, mostly rhetorical answer. Had Warner or the horde of staffers sitting behind him bothered to scratch the surface, they would have found real problems. For example, shortly after the hearing, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki wrote to Congress complaining that the Army was anything but "absolutely" ready. According to his letter, Army readiness accounts were already $3.2 billion short for base operations, ammunition and training.
Warner again interrupted the questioning to announce that he had just received a hand-delivered letter from the CIA stating that evidence of a North Korean missile with enough range to reach California was old news. Immediately after that, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, began a question by stating that the day before, the CIA had revealed the new information that the North Koreans had a missile that could reach Hawaii. Things like that happen when senators don't pay attention and staffers don't tell them to revise their scripts. Akaka then moved on to his concerns about the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Guam.
Later came the new senator from Arkansas, Democrat Mark Pryor. I was looking forward to his questions. I worked for two years for his father, Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., a real tiger on oversight. Son Mark first read two questions from Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., who had by then left the hearing. Byrd's queries probed the missing budget request to pay for the war. Pryor got a nonanswer and, without any follow-up, moved on to his own question: "Wouldn't Secretary Rumsfeld agree that it would be terrible if Little Rock Air Force Base and Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas were closed?"
I was horrified. As far as I could tell, the 45 staffers present had done nothing to help their bosses understand where soldiers on the eve of war needed help, almost nothing to help senators exercise control of the purse strings to pay for the war, and very little that had anything to do with examining serious national security issues in peacetime, let alone during a war. The senators weren't any better. Not paying attention, reading off questions with dated information and nudging Rumsfeld about home state pork seemed to be their idea of how to prepare for war.
It wasn't oversight. Instead, a lot was overlooked.
Winslow T. Wheeler is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, where he is writing a book on Congress and national security. Wheeler spent 31 years working for four senators from both political parties and for the General Accounting Office.