December 2001 - How a Report on Terrorism Flew Under the Radar


We were warned. Some of the best minds in the United States attempted to alert the nation that, without a new emphasis on homeland security and attention to terrorism, "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers" as the result of terrorist attacks. The first warning came in September 1999, when former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, co-chairs, used those words in the first of three documents from an entity called the United States Commission on National Security, created during a rare moment of agreement between President Clinton and House speaker Newt Gingrich. Then, seven months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the commission re-emphasized its warning, this time with a detailed agenda for action to make America safer from terrorism. The report was scary but it was also constructive and authoritative. And it is fair to say that most Americans never heard of it until after the attacks.

What happened?

On January 31, Hart and Rudman looked with satisfaction on the television cameras and print reporters assembled in the Mansfield Room of the United States Senate. They were there to present the commission's final report of 150 pages. It was called Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change, and was signed by their twelve fellow commissioners, who represented the kind of blue-ribbon braintrust Washington is so good at putting together (see box). Over a three-year period, the wise men had visited twenty-five countries and consulted more than a hundred experts. Hart and Rudman had as their executive director the one-time fighter pilot, Charles (Chuck) Boyd, the only graduate of the Hanoi Hilton to make four-star general. They and their staffs went to great lengths to alert the press in advance to the gravity of the commissioners' findings.

"Hell," says Rudman, "it was the first comprehensive rethinking of national security since Harry Truman in 1947." The conclusions were startling: "States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." The commission also explored many of the underlying factors. Hart told me: "We got a terrific sense of the resentment building against the U.S. as a bully, which alarmed us."

The report was a devastating indictment of the "fragmented and inadequate" structures and strategies already in place to prevent, and then respond to, the attacks on U.S. cities, which the commissioners predicted. Hart specifically mentioned the lack of preparation for "a weapon of mass destruction in a high-rise building." But the report was not simply alarmist. It was unusually constructive, avoiding grandiose language for a step-by-step blueprint of what urgently needed to be done to create a National Homeland Security Agency, revive the frontline public services, and pull together the forty discrete official bodies with responsibility for national security.

"We need orders-of-magnitude improvements in planning, coordination, and exercise," the report concluded. "Any reorganization must be mindful of the scale of the scenarios we envisage and the enormity of their consequences." They urged that, since our borders are so porous, the uniformed services of the Customs Service, the Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard should report to a new National Homeland Security Agency; that homeland security should become a priority mission for the National Guard; that human intelligence sources on terrorism should be recruited as a priority. The writers also had a broad vision: "A world amenable to American interests and values will not come into being by itself. Much of the world will resent and oppose us, if not for the simple fact of our preeminence, then for the fact that others often perceive the United States as exercising its power with arrogance and self-absorption." A number of the commissioners visited the editorial boards of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post before they released their report. They brought with them a press kit containing a crisp executive summary of the report.

Press conferences and private briefings were all to little avail.

Network television news ignored the report; so did the serious evening news on public television. Only CNN did it justice with a full discussion. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal did not carry a line, either of the report or the press conference. Boyd told me: "I won't ever forget that day in Senate Room 207." He watched in disbelief as the Times reporter left before the presentation was over, saying it was not much of a story. Coverage was excellent in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, with a smattering of good stories in USA Today, and the smaller and regional newspapers using AP and Reuters. But what most astonished and then outraged the commissioners was that none of the major newspapers, except the Los Angeles Times briefly, offered any kind of follow-up or critical analysis in editorials or op-ed pieces. Nowhere did Hart-Rudman get the kind of discussion and amplification of the sort that tends to prompt the political machinery to operate. In short, the report passed under the radar.

The Hart-Rudman report is the kind that required elite opinion to engage in a sustained dialogue to probe, improve, explain, and then press for action. None of the network talk shows took it up. But the commissioners were particularly bewildered by the blackout at the The New York Times; they pitched an op-ed article signed by Hart and Rudman in the hope that it would induce the Times to take a proper look at the commission's work. The article was rejected.
Newspapers, by their nature, are bound to miss stories from time to time; a good newspaper will then follow up, trying to recover. There was no attempt to repair the omission in the Times or the Journal. The performance of the Times, the country's leading newspaper, is curious since it has distinguished itself over the years by giving prominence to Saddam Hussein's mischiefs, and to notable front-page reports by Judith Miller, William Broad, and Stephen Engelberg on the threats of bioterrorism. Its editorials on state-sponsored terrorism have been robust. Inquiries to the Times failed to elicit a response.

The commissioners are variously "dumbfounded" (Hart), "surprised" (Schlesinger), "stunned" (Gelb), "appalled" (Rudman). "The New York Times," says the agreeably forthright Rudman, "deserves its ass kicked." Gingrich is more rueful: "I was very saddened. I don't expect the networks, people who cover daily events, to be interested. But I thought, in particular, for The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal not to give it really serious coverage was a significant failure in providing educated citizens with an important report. And frankly, other than [creating an office of] Homeland Security they still haven't gone back and contemplated the scale of change we're describing."

November/December 2001


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