If voters are going to be able to make an informed choice in November, the presidential commission on pre-war intelligence headed by former Senator Charles Robb and federal Judge Laurence Silberman must hold public hearings before the election. The 9/11 hearings that just finished have convinced me of that.
The administration will stonewall the commission if it tries to hurry along. Administration foot-dragging will have plenty of support from Congressional Republicans and Washington wise men that will warn that such somber matters shouldn't be tainted by election year politics. Such tainting is trivial. Informing voters before they vote is vital.
And it's not going to happen without hearings by the Robb-Silberman commission.
The administration didn't want a 9/11 inquest in the first place, but they gave in. They didn't want to give Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton access to key documents and key staff, but they gave in. They didn't want high profile hearings in an election year, but they gave in. They didn't want Condoleezza Rice to testify in public, but they gave in. They didn't want President Bush to appear, but they gave in.
The Bush administration didn't want an inquisition into their case for war with Iraq - big time, but they gave in.
Now the administration should get ahead of the "give in" steamroller and allow hearings by that commission this summer. July 1 would be a good start date, the day after sovereignty is transferred in Iraq.
Why? Because the 9/11 hearings worked.
High officers of both the Clinton and Bush administrations were called to account in public before an expert, authoritative and quite nonpartisan panel. The fireworks sparked by Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice got the public's attention. But the hearings were not a spectacle of showboating by members of Congress looking to boost their Q-factors and reelect numbers.
Indeed, the hearings brought a good deal of new information to the light of public scrutiny. Just as importantly, they provided a great education for voters, reporters and, probably, Congress.
Some Republicans tried to paint the Kean-Hamilton inquest as a partisan witchhunt, but it wasn't. Sure, Richard Ben-Veniste, Timothy Roemer, James Thompson or Fred Fielding sometimes came off as partisan hatchet men. But overall the questioning was balanced and skillful and the results were edifying.
The Bush administration was taken to task for some specific actions, but wasn't trashed for its pre-9/11 performance. Same for the Clinton administration. I think it was a fair trial and the jury of voters is now well informed and will look at the evidence about the pre-9/11 American understanding of the terrorist threat with common sense and without pointed fingers.
The voters should have the same opportunity to assess the decision to take the country to war in Iraq.
The panel's official title is the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United Sates regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. The long, dull name reflects the administration's desire to constrict the panel's mission to WMD issues and prevent forays into the administration's focus on Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda or the president's apparent preoccupation with Iraq as the mother of all evil-doing. The panel should respectfully blow those restrictions off and assess the whole palette of pre-war intelligence.
President Bush has offered numerous justifications for the war and continued to do so at Wednesday's prime time news conference. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was tied to al Qaeda. The Iraqi people deserved to be liberated. This week, Mr. Bush explained that America was "called" to "work toward a more free world" because "freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world."
The WMD commission ought to explore all of this. If President Bush's view of the missionary vocation of America to spread freedom on the planet influenced his administration's decision to go to war and its interpretation of pre-war intelligence, it should be on the table.
The Robb-Silberman commission has been slow to get started. The panel's executive director, retired admiral, John Redd, has been working for Paul Bremer in Iraq and won't start until May. But that leaves plenty of time for hot hearings in July.
What do you say, Mr. President?
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editoral Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer