Let's start with a word association test.
What do you think of when you hear the word "protection"?
How about the word "security"?
If these words give you a warm, fuzzy feeling recalling the innocence of childhood, that would be a normal reaction. But in the wrong hands these words can stand for anything but their intended meaning.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the American people - especially those people in close proximity to Ground Zero - hungered for protection and security. Instead, what they got were dangerously deceptive assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency, aided and abetted by the National Security Council.
A report released by the Office of the Inspector General of the EPA says the agency gave the public misleading information about the airborne health hazards in and around buildings near the World Trade Center. The EPA was reassuring people before it had even finished testing the particle-laden air.
"When EPA made a September 18 announcement that the air was 'safe' to breathe, it did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement," the report says. "Furthermore, the White House Council on Environmental Quality influenced the information that EPA communicated to the public through its early press releases when it convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
The day after the terrorist attacks, an e-mail distributed to senior EPA officials warned, "All statements to the media should be cleared through the National Security Council before they are released." The White House Council on Environmental Quality gave the public false assurances at the direction of the NSC.
Later, an EPA official would tell investigators that the agency could not claim ownership of early press releases on the World Trade Center disaster because "the ownership was joint ownership between EPA and the White House."
Alert readers will recall that National Security Council operatives played a similar role in an earlier scandal involving the false assertion in President George W. Bush's State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire uranium in Africa for weapons of mass destruction.
In exposing the latest example of bamboozling the public, the report repeatedly mentions "the desire to reopen Wall Street" as playing a big role in the decision to soft-pedal the danger posed by pollutants in the air.
How's that for compassionate conservatism?
Investigators said the extent of White House influence on the EPA's press releases was "most clearly illustrated" by changes made to a press release issued on Sept. 16, five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The edited release deleted this statement: "The concern raised by these samples would be for the workers at the cleanup site and for those workers who might be returning to their offices on or near Water Street on Monday, Sept. 17."
Inserted was this reassuring quote from Assistant Labor Secretary John L. Henshaw: "Our tests show that it is safe for New Yorkers to go back to work in New York's financial district."
Commenting on the NSC-doctored Sept. 16 press release, an EPA official said, "I did not feel like it was my press release."
Today, almost two years after the terrorist attacks in New York, many New Yorkers continue to complain about their "World Trade Center cough." Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district surrounds Ground Zero, says tens of thousands of people still live and work in contaminated buildings and that many likely will contract asbestos-related lung cancers 15 or 20 years from now.
"White House and EPA officials have blood on their hands because of their continuing failure - to this day - to implement a proper clean-up for toxic contaminants," Nadler said.
For the rest of us, the latest example of lying by this White House is just another nail in the coffin of government trust.
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.
© 2003 The Plain Dealer.