Jewish World Review April 23, 2004 / 2 Iyar 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Sideshow: Politics in wartime | With the country at war and a presidential election approaching, the leader of the opposition got wind of some disturbing information about his opponent: Thanks to decoded messages, the president of the United States had known a surprise attack on this country was being planned by the enemy, yet had failed to prevent it.

The year was 1944, the Republican running against President Franklin D. Roosevelt was Thomas E. Dewey, and the surprise attack had occurred three years before at Pearl Harbor. The American fleet had been caught unawares - even though the Japanese diplomatic code had been broken by then, and the president had been reading intercepted messages warning of just such an attack. Yet word of the danger failed to reach the commanders on the scene in time to disrupt the attack or mount an effective defense against it.

Governor Dewey was planning a major campaign speech in which he would reveal FDR's prior knowledge of the threat to American territory, but General George C. Marshall persuaded him not to deliver that speech - in the interests of military secrecy and national unity.

Times were different then.

Today, almost three years after another day that will live in infamy - September 11th, 2001 - a commission continues to look into how and why the country fell victim to the most devastating attack on the American mainland in modern times.

The model for its work should have been the Warren Commission, whose painstaking conclusions have been upheld by every serious work of history since. Instead, the commission adopted the style of the more prosecutorial Watergate Committee - but without anyone like Sam Ervin or Howard Baker to lend it insight and stature and, most important, control some of its more intemperate members.

Instead, the commission's hearings have degenerated into a partisan sideshow - a search for scapegoats instead of an exercise in deliberate judgment.

A succession of spectacles has ensued. The star witness for the prosecution was Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief who was supposed to have prevented this disaster. He didn't, but he did manage to publish his memoirs just before testifying and sell the movie rights to his story, too, and now he's granted a major television network exclusive rights to his services as a talking head. Not since Ollie North's Iran-Contra caper has presiding over a catastrophe inspired such a successful career in the media.

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The prosecutor-in-chief, Richard Ben-Veniste, sees a presidential briefing paper and reads into it a clear warning of a plot to plunge airliners into the Pentagon and World Trade Center - warnings that no fair-minded reader saw when the paper was declassified.

Those of us who have come to relish Mr. Ben-Veniste's rhetorical tricks particularly enjoy the way he prefaces any factually dubious assertion with the phrase, "Isn't it a fact that . . . ."

That little shtick had become his trademark even before Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, called him on it. Counselor Ben-Veniste has never really recovered from their exchange, although he tried to by making the rounds of the talk shows.

Thomas Keane, the chairman of the commission, now has (a) denied that its stars are grandstanding or playing politics, and (b) promised that they'll stop. Or as he put it, "There will be a lower profile." How delicately put. The Bob Kerreys and Richard Ben-Venistes could scarcely have higher ones by now.

The most effective witness before the committee has been Attorney General John Ashcroft, who pointed out the principal problem with American intelligence-gathering before September 11th - the wall between the FBI and CIA. Despite the Patriot Act, the remains of that wall and the institutional rivalries it fostered still hamper American intelligence operations today.

Even back then, Mr. Ashcroft noted, a frustrated FBI agent had predicted that "someday somebody - someone - will die. And wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective . . . ."

As the attorney general noted, the crippling separation between foreign and domestic operations did not arise by itself. "Somebody built this wall," he told the commissioners, and now we have a good idea who some of those people were. For the attorney general mentioned a Justice Department memorandum of 1995 elaborating on the law that established foreign and domestic intelligence operations as separate realms.

John Ashcroft pointed out that the author of that 1995 memorandum was now a member of the 9/11 Commission, sitting in judgment on the very policy she'd helped shape. He was referring to Jamie Gorelick, the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. Which only adds to the farcical aspects of this "impartial investigation."

Ms. Gorelick did have enough grace to recuse herself from questioning the current attorney general, but she remains on the commission. Even though, instead of asking questions, she needs to be answering them. Under oath. Jamie Gorelick now has entered the polemical wars by publishing her own version of events in The Washington Post. But no matter how much she protests, Ms. Gorelick can't deny that the stated purpose of her memorandum was to "more clearly separate" counterterrorism efforts from law enforcement. That is, to build that infamous wall higher.

But none of that has stopped her from acting like an advocate instead of an impartial investigator. It's a bit like a judge deciding to step down and argue a case before resuming his place on the bench. But almost nobody seems to notice. That's just the way Washington is these days.

And so it has gone.

It's 2004, another election year, and there's another war on, but the temptation to make partisan hay has proven irresistible to this nonpartisan commission. Its final, written report will doubtless provide useful grist for discussion and maybe even action, but day after day its headliners have embarrassed themselves and the whole idea of blue-ribbon commissions. In short, this is proving the kind of investigation that needs investigating.

Immediately after September 11th, united we stood. But the enemy has been unable to mount another such attack on these shores - so far - and a familiar American syndrome now has set in: historical amnesia aggravated by political backbiting. With the passage of time and the return of complacency, divided we fall.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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