Not about blame

May 21, 2002

THE COUNTRY cannot fault George W. Bush for failing to avert the disaster of Sept. 11.

Yes, there were suggestions that Osama bin Laden's men might try to pull off a hijacking, and yes, the president was warned on Aug. 6 that some sort of attack might be forthcoming.

But no, Mr. Bush and his administration could not have anticipated with any meaningful specificity what was to happen.

To suggest otherwise is not helpful. The prospect of protracted Congressional hearings - with all the showboating and dishonesty that attend highly political hearings - simply to find someone in the administration to blame is disheartening at best.

And yet the rancor and arrogance that since last week have characterized the administration's response to criticisms or questions is no less disturbing. Rather than trying to provide some candid answers, Vice President Dick Cheney and others have fallen back on lame accusations about their critics' patriotism. This also is not helpful.

The two sides in Washington are acting as though they have lost sight of what should be uppermost: that Sept. 11 is, still, a very painful moment in the lives of Americans. It's not abstract. It's not an issue or a debate, but a wound. To see it being used for political advantage - and people within both the White House and Congress are certainly trying to do so - is sickening.

It was clear on the morning of Sept. 11 that there had been a breakdown in American intelligence. Some of the details of that failure have come into focus since then, particularly in the past week or so. From the information that has so far become public, it appears that the FBI was especially unwilling to share what it knew with other agencies, or for that matter to encourage communication within the bureau itself.

But that's a scratch-the-surface sort of analysis. There are a thousand questions that could still be asked about that day and what led up to it and what came after it. Here's one: Is the coordination among agencies any better now than it was then?

To pose those questions - in the proper sort of forum - is entirely appropriate. This is not because Americans need to find people to blame. They do need, to some extent, to be assured that the lapses will be corrected, that the mistakes won't be repeated. But more than anything, the people of this country just need to know. How can Americans make sense of what happened Sept. 11 without learning as much as they can about the context of that horrifying moment?

That sort of knowledge doesn't come from congressmen making fools of themselves. But neither does it come from a high-handed and secret-loving administration.

If it had the will, the White House could find an appropriate and competent way to address the public's need to learn more about what happened and what is still happening. But the signs are not encouraging.

On Sunday, Mr. Cheney declared that another terrorist attack on American interests is inevitable, somewhere, sometime. He seemed to be motivated more by petulance than by a desire to provide leadership, because such a broad and vague warning was not, on the scale of things, very useful. This is better than trying to ignore terrorism, but not by a whole lot.

Yes, it serves as a reminder that Mr. Bush was faced with an equally broad and vague warning last summer. But the point is what? How much better it would be just to level with the American people.

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