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'NEWSWEEK - WHAT WE REALLY NEED TO KNOW - 2 JUN 2002'


11th September 2001
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FROM: http://www.msnbc.com/news/760638.asp

What We Really Need to Know

The basic Bush attitude toward accountability seems to be: stuff it. This distaste for ‘Monday-morning quarterbacking’ predates 9-11

NEWSWEEK

June 10 issue — What if I told you that your friendly local chemical factory was vulnerable to terrorist attack? You’d want to know, and make a free, informed choice about where to live.

IF I GOT SPECIFIC about how exactly terrorists could exploit the vulnerability (like some of the so-called “terrorism for dummies” Web sites now being shut down), you’d be furious that I was potentially helping the enemy. But if I kept you in the dark about the threat, you couldn’t pressure the plant to change. Tilt too far toward specifying hazards, we risk aiding terrorists. But tilt too far toward secrecy—a natural impulse in times of trouble—and we risk learning so little from our mistakes and vulnerabilities that we might get whacked again.
This ancient struggle between freedom and security is going full blast, not just in hazardous industries but across the whole range of post-September 11 reforms. In most cases, it’s not right versus wrong, but the much more difficult tussle of right versus right.

The Bush administration is right that it’s absurd that until last week’s announcement of guideline revisions, the FBI wasn’t even allowed to surf the Internet looking for bad guys (something my fifth grader is certainly empowered to do) or monitor mosques. At the same time, liberals and libertarians are right to suspect that once the government can spy on anyone, it will—and not just potential terrorists.

Whether looking forward or backward, the best way to balance security and freedom is accountability. For years, we haven’t had it in law enforcement. Bill Clinton’s FBI director, Louis Freeh, was a terrible manager who deserved to be fired (remember Richard Jewell, those shoddy crime labs and the lost Timothy McVeigh documents?). But Clinton was so compromised by his own behavior—and Freeh so protected by the anti-Clinton GOP in Congress—that the FBI director was bulletproof.

Bush hasn’t been any better on that score. He hired a new director, but even after the attacks he inexplicably failed to demand reform of the bureau. At the CIA, he chose loyalty to an ingratiating holdover, George Tenet, over necessary housecleaning. The president was unfairly tarred for not having done more before September 11; the real question is why he didn’t show more curiosity after. When asked recently whether Bush has now read the critical still-secret memo by Phoenix agent Kenneth Williams warning about terrorists and flight schools, the White House said no, a briefing on it sufficed. If you were president, wouldn’t you want to read it?

Maybe not. There’s something typically American about Incurious George. He’s also understandably reacting against the scandal culture of the 1990s, where finger-pointing and scapegoating became not just a blood sport but a cliche. The Bush family has long loathed public spectacle and preferred government behind closed doors. Even so, there are practical as well as political reasons for understanding exactly what went wrong. You can’t fix something until you fix some blame.

Other modern presidents understood this. Perhaps FDR’s 1941 Roberts Commission (on Pearl Harbor, set up within three weeks of the attack), LBJ’s 1963 Warren Commission (on the JFK assassination) and Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Rogers Commission (on the space-shuttle explosion) were whitewashes, but they were also invaluable documents for beginning to understand these disasters. At a minimum, they got the major players on record before their memories faded and highly charged hearings on Capitol Hill began.

By contrast, Bush rejected an independent inquiry of any kind. His preference was for no investigation at all; he only agreed to one by the Joint Committee on Intelligence under pressure.

The basic Bush attitude toward accountability seems to be: stuff it. This distaste for what he considers “Monday-morning quarterbacking” predates September 11. Allow historians continued access to old unclassified presidential documents? Nope. Release the names of those corporations that had private audiences with Vice President Cheney’s energy task force? Not gonna happen without a court order. Come clean at long last on the contacts between the White House and Enron? In your dreams.

The Democrats will try to exploit that impulse this fall. One of their big campaign themes is summed up by James Carville and other strategists as “lack of accountability”—on everything from Enron to the environment to national security. I’m not sure it will work, but I do know that the only way to secure our safety—at the FBI or the chemical plant down the road—is holding people accountable for performance. Bush understands that in the field of education. It’s about time he starts raising standards for homeland defense too.

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.

FROM: http://www.msnbc.com/news/760638.asp

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