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."
think carefully about the price of ignorance and the consequences of silence.
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
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
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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