Sounds Of Silence

George Bush Homeland security anti terror
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This commentary from The New Republic was written by the editors.


Last December, when President Bush named Tom Kean, the mild-mannered Republican former governor of New Jersey, to lead the commission investigating the September 11 attacks, critics scoffed that Kean would be an administration patsy. But the White House's resistance to releasing crucial information about the attacks has stirred him to anger. "I will not stand for it," Kean fumed last week. "Anything that has to do with 9/11, we have to see it -- anything." Kean has complained for several weeks about executive branch foot-dragging and has suggested the administration may be trying to run out the clock on the committee's mandate, which expires in May.

Kean's not the only one who's upset. Other Republican members of the committee, including former Sen. Slade Gorton, a stalwart conservative, have echoed his complaints. And, given that the commission's mandate is to determine how the attacks happened and to make recommendations about stopping another one, these complaints are serious business.

Any lack of cooperation from the White House is troubling, but one key point of contention is especially disturbing: whether the commission will have access to daily intelligence briefings given to the president in the weeks before September 11, 2001. Particularly in light of revelations that at least one of these reports indicated that al Qaeda was planning to hijack U.S. airliners, these briefings are clearly relevant. Studying them might help the commission recommend ways of prioritizing future briefings more effectively.

But the White House is blocking the commission from seeing the briefings. The administration claims they contain sensitive information that, if made public, could compromise national security. But so does limiting our understanding of the terrorist attacks. And there's little reason to think that a panel of seasoned statesmen like former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton, the commission's co-chair, would expose classified intelligence. The same goes for their professional staff, overseen by Phillip Zelikow, a professor at the University of Virginia, who is chummy with the GOP national security establishment and who co-authored a book with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. In fact, the 9/11 commission has vowed to take utmost care to protect the intelligence it receives.

The other key White House argument is that the release of past daily intelligence briefings will distort future ones. The White House argues that government officials might shape their advisories differently -- cover their asses, to put it bluntly -- if they have reason to think the briefings could become public someday. The Bush administration has repeatedly invoked this reasoning to defend "deliberative" internal documents on subjects as varied as Justice Department investigations, internal memos written by stymied judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, and Dick Cheney's secret energy policy sessions. While there may be theoretical merit to this argument, it is certainly less compelling than the need to fully account for a terrorist catastrophe and prevent another one. And it is badly undermined by the White House's tendency to invoke it only in cases when the administration may have something to hide. Consider, by contrast, the fact that Bob Woodward was readily shown hundreds of secret National Security Council documents revealing vast amounts of deliberative information for his hagiographic book, "Bush at War."

Another reason to distrust the White House's motives is its obvious, and loathsome, hostility to the commission itself. For months after September 11, the White House and its congressional allies blocked the creation of an independent panel. Last October, in fact, John McCain and Joe Lieberman complained to "The New York Times" that the Bush administration was "deliberately sabotaging their efforts to create an independent investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks." Even after Bush yielded to pressure from 9/11 survivors and allowed a commission, he failed to fund it in his budget request this year, forcing Congress to come to its rescue again. These crude White House tactics seem more than a little self-defeating. Because Congress can extend the commission's life, delays will only push any possibly embarrassing revelations closer to the 2004 election. Surely the White House realizes that the perception of a cover-up is more politically damaging than turning over a few intelligence reports. Unless, of course, it really does have something scandalous to hide.

The Editors of The New Republic.

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