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Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites

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Sunday, April 18, 2004

 
Talking Heads to 9/11 Commissioners: Don’t be Talking Heads


I had earlier taken note of General Wayne Downing (here and here), the first of several successors to Richard Clarke’s role as the Bush Administration’s chief counter-terrorism expert. Friday, he made another appearance, this time on the op-ed page of the New York Times, in a piece co-authored with Juliette Kayyem, where he argues that the 9/11 commission should impose “a voluntary gag order on itself.”

I respectfully disagree.

First, his prime complaint – that commission members undermine their credibility by commenting on news shows– fails to consider what would most likely occur if the commissioners did not do so: mainly, that the news media would simply fill the void in their story-slots with other, less directly informed, talking heads. To argue that this would help matters is at best doubtful. That the authors – both themselves NBC commentators – might stand to gain further employment by stepping into that very void also does nothing to bolster their claim.

Second, to argue the merits of a gag order, they posit an analogy between the commissioners’ role, and that of a jury. This is also questionable. To accept this analogy, you would somehow have to imagine jurors who directly question witnesses, keep extensive notes, and deliver detailed written analyses of their findings, which may well turn out to be nuanced and somewhat ambiguous – though exactly how they are supposed to get through the questioning part without first opening their mouths is still not clear to me.

Third, the entire courtroom analogy is weak. There are no specific charges, no clear defendant, and no formal sanctioning power. Apart from certain similarities of setting, and the fact that there are witnesses who (with a notable pair of exceptions) give sworn testimony, the hearings, at least from this non-lawyer’s perspective, bear little resemblance to a courtroom proceeding (though it would have been a welcome development had the commissioners issued more judge-like admonishments to “answer the question”).

The commission is an investigative body, acting on behalf of the public. Their role, in simple terms, is not to prosecute the thief after your house has been robbed, but rather to answer the questions that you might pose to your most trusted advisors in the aftermath: is there something we overlooked, that might have prevented this; and what can we do now, that might stop this from happening again?

Fourth, it is difficult to imagine that any eventual finding would be more credible by concealing from the public the vigorous debate that went into it. I, for one, am less likely to suspect a whitewash after hearing from the likes of Bob Kerry and Richard Ben-Veniste; the public comments of Jim Thompson and others may help assure my more rightward-leaning brethren that the commission is not a "partisan attack" on the White House.

Finally, it is worth noting that the very visibility of the proceedings has produced some results that, more than likely, will materially improve the credibility of the outcome. Comment and public controversy over Condoleezza Rice’s refusal to testify, and subsequently over the White House stonewalling over the August 11 PDB, just to name two, has made a valuable difference in the evidence available to the commission and to the public. I doubt that we would have made much progress on either point had the commissioners been more guarded in their comments.

So, in other words, sorry General, I don't buy your logic, or your conclusions. But I tell you what: before we spend too much time arguing whether the commission's conclusions are credible, why don't we wait and find out what they are?

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