A question of accountability

The Right to Know

July 25, 2002|By Jill A. Schuker

WASHINGTON -- A hushed American public has accepted a dearth of information since Sept. 11 regarding the events surrounding that day and the aftermath.

We have seemingly abdicated -- almost gratefully, it appears at times -- the right to know.

The Associated Press has reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "campaign against leaks" and controlling news "has created an atmosphere of fear among some officials who deal with reporters."

On CNBC recently, he commented that such individuals "ought to be imprisoned. And if we find out who they are, they will be imprisoned." What about due process?

While we look to our governmental institutions to regain our balance at a time when our vulnerabilities are showing perhaps more so than at any time since the Vietnam War, might we be giving up more than we intend in the name of security? How are civil liberties being affected especially during this potentially endless and ill-defined "war"?

It is incumbent upon a democracy -- our democracy -- to pursue legitimate inquiry and seek information and answers. What are the new parameters and what do they demand? The American public is absent hard information.

We are relying on our government to supply all answers, generally operating in uncharted territory -- a war with no front and in an atmosphere that is consistently edgy and tense, domestically and internationally. Have we given up our right to know, to our need to know? And who defines this need? This atmosphere is dangerous.

Government's accountability to the people is what makes America unique -- not just at the ballot box but through our First Amendment freedoms, most especially a free press.

As a mature society, we understand the need to cede certain power to government in the wake of the cataclysm of Sept. 11. But we must not lose our way in the process, becoming so distracted that we enable sub-surface panic to displace constitutional rights and guarantees. As Benjamin Franklin stated two centuries ago, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Too often in recent months, probing questions to government -- in Congress and in the press -- are met with silence and stonewalling, or are labeled as an unpatriotic attack on a status quo needed to hold a still emotionally damaged country together.

But questioning Sept. 11 intelligence failures is not only legitimate but wise and deserves and demands answers, including what we know about the strength and whereabouts of the global terror network still operating.

We are right to ask who is being held at Guantanamo Bay-- including Americans -- and why, and right to expect our news media not just to inquire but to investigate.

We are right to ask whether certain policy actions are being taken to support a political agenda in the name of secrecy and security rather than because they are required to "promote the general welfare."

We are right to ask about government accountability and what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including whether our pilots are getting the training they need, including "fire discipline."

We are right to ask about the health of our relationships with our allies and the tensions in our Middle East policies.

We are right to ask how a new Department of Homeland Security ultimately can work when key security agencies such as the FBI and the CIA are outside its domain.

And, ultimately, we are right to ask whether we are learning the right lessons from the past.

The real danger is turning questioning into an attack on those asking.

In the midst of feeling our way through a new paradigm, we need to recognize the legitimate need for change in new circumstances but not to transform ourselves into a society that is a shadow of its pre-Sept. 11 self. This means trust, but it also means vigilance.

The public has a right to know and a need to know. We must think carefully about the price of ignorance and the consequences of silence.

Jill A. Schuker is former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for national security affairs and senior director for public affairs at the National Security Council. She is a senior vice president at a political consulting company and a member of the Century Foundation's Project on Homeland Security.

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