November 7, 2003 --
POLITICS is an honor- able profession prac- ticed by men and women who occasionally do dishonorable things. On the playing field of national politics, the competition between the two major parties (also known as partisan politics) is most often constructive because it is a means by which we become a more perfect union.
Sometimes, however, partisan politics does the opposite. It destroys the comity needed for compromise. The most extreme and tragic instance of this happened four score and five years after our founders brought forth on this continent a new system of government.
The production of a memo by an employee of a Democratic member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is an example of the destructive side of partisan politics. That it probably emerged as a consequence of an increasingly partisan environment in Washington and may have been provoked by equally destructive Republican acts is neither a comfort nor a defensible rationalization.
It is small comfort because the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees were established 30 years ago expressly and explicitly to be a unique refuge from the destructive forces of partisan politics. Keeping these committees non-partisan is vital for the nation's security because much of what is done to collect, process and disseminate intelligence needed by civilian and military leaders is done under conditions of rigorously regulated secrecy.
Members of these committees are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate. Their responsibility is to examine top-secret programs and systems with the goal of making certain our war-fighters can dominate the battlefield and our diplomats are fully prepared to meet the challenges of statecraft. The committees also hear and judge presidential requests for covert-operations authority and examine significant intelligence failures.
In those instances where intelligence failures become important public issues, the danger arises that partisan politics will become destructive of the committee's purpose. Whenever they caucus with their parties, the chairman and vice-chairman are under pressure to use the failure for political gain rather than simply trying to make certain the failure doesn't happen again.
I know these pressures well. In 1995 as vice-chairman of the Senate's committee, I worked with the then-chairman, Sen. Arlen Spector, to move away from a system in which the committee staff was divided between Republican and Democratic members, as it is on all other Senate committees. We argued that the staff should be professional and work for the entire committee without regard to party affiliation.
I believe this is the only way the committees can perform their unique and vital mission. And the chairman and vice-chairman need consistent support from both the Republican and Democratic leaders to keep partisan politics from influencing the work of the committee. Otherwise, short-term partisan gains - no matter its justification - will be purchased with long-term national-security losses.
For the sake of peace and security, Americans should hope and insist that this cynical memorandum be used as a wake-up call to push the partisan politics out of the work of these committees.
New School University President Bob Kerrey served as vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.