White House Tries To Evade Questions

In the voices of the Vice President, the National Security Advisor, the White House press secretary and various members of the Republican chorus on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration keeps answering questions that haven’t been asked-and avoiding questions that must be answered if the nation is to avoid an even worse catastrophe than that of Sept. 11, 2001.

No serious person has asked whether George W. Bush or his aides knew in advance that terrorists were planning to seize civilian airliners and crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And no serious person has suggested that Mr. Bush himself ought to have predicted those specific plans and events.

By rebutting those nonexistent accusations, the administration evidently hopes to deflect the appointment of an independent commission with full investigative authority. Why do Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney fear such a probe?

According to Mr. Cheney, he is worried about a “circus atmosphere” on Capitol Hill, with politicians hunting for headlines. He is concerned about the disclosure of “sources and methods.” He suggests that if an independent commission is appointed to investigate Sept. 11, the national-security apparatus will be badly compromised in its ability to prevent the next attack.

As this is written, the level of alert on the Homeland Security color chart is yellow, which is midway up the scale. Yet the Vice President sounded as if he hoped to scare the country into avoiding any investigation that might ultimately embarrass the administration.

Among the specific items that the White House would prefer to be kept from public view is that Presidential Daily Briefing memorandum from Aug. 6, 2001, which reportedly mentioned the prospect or possibility of a hijacking by Al Qaeda operatives. Indeed, Mr. Cheney doesn’t even want that document to be turned over to Congress. This dogged secrecy, however, contradicts the description of the Aug. 6 memo provided by Mr. Cheney and other administration officials, who have said that all it contained was vague, nonspecific “chatter.”

The Vice President said on May 19 that he had gone back to read the August memo himself, finding only old news from years earlier and no “actionable intelligence” at all. Ari Fleischer, by contrast, has claimed that the memo prompted an alert to the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines. That, he said, was why the hijackers had used box-cutters in their assault. (Did he mean to imply that the alert was forwarded to Al Qaeda, too?)

It isn’t easy to make sense of the administration’s argument. If that memo was so inconsequential, then what harm would be done by its release-with redactions, if necessary? It would only prove that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have been truthful. If it wasn’t inconsequential and vague, then the public needs to know why it was not acted upon.

The Vice President’s objections to an independent commission are unconvincing. And unfortunately, they follow his attempts last winter to stifle the investigation by Congress. Even some Republicans in Washington are beginning to wonder what he and his boss are afraid will be revealed. One likely answer can be found in the current edition of Newsweek: Despite repeated warnings from Clinton appointees that dated back to the very first day of the Bush administration, the new President and his super-competent team were simply not terribly interested in that topic until much too late.

According to Newsweek , no official of cabinet rank made counterterrorism a top priority. Attorney General John Ashcroft was preoccupied with “traditional” law enforcement against drug abusers and pornographers. He allegedly turned down a request from the F.B.I. to hire “hundreds” of additional counterintelligence agents.

Over at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was obsessed with the construction of a “national missile defense” whose irrelevance was proved on that tragic day last September. (The nukes we now rightly fear are not expected to arrive on an antique rocket from North Korea.) Mr. Rumsfeld also reportedly killed a request to shift $800 million from the missile-defense budget to counterterrorism-and ordered the grounding of the innovative Predator drone sent up by “the Clintonites” to track and possibly kill Osama bin Laden. In fact, it was two officials held over from the previous administration-counterterror chief Richard Clarke and C.I.A. director George Tenet-who tried to direct the government’s attention to the looming threat from Al Qaeda in the weeks and months before Sept. 11.

This is not a blame game, but an essential effort to understand what was wrong with the procedures and priorities of government. An independent commission was Ronald Reagan’s immediate response to the Iran-contra scandal. Now this President, who claims Mr. Reagan as his model, should accept the same kind of thorough, nonpartisan probe. White House Tries To Evade Questions