BY WALTER CRONKITE
Last week, this column trod, perhaps too softly, on the issue of the veracity of President Bush and his administration. Since then, questions concerning their truthfulness -- or, at the minimum, their candor -- have multiplied alarmingly.
In this regard, the independent commission investigating 9/11 has smoked out the Bush administration as nothing has since George W. came into office pledging to return integrity to the White House. From the beginning of the commission's work, the White House has thrown in its way one roadblock after another regarding funding, duration and its access to people and documents. And time after time the White House has relented in the face of political pressure, but only as much as needed to reduce that pressure.
We recently witnessed a tug of war over National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who refused to appear before the panel (whose members have top-secret security clearance), under oath, to answer questions raised by Richard Clarke, both in his book and his testimony. It was, Rice and the White House insisted, a matter of principle that a presidential adviser not be so required -- the principle being the independence of the executive from the legislative branch and the president's right to protect the confidence of his advisers.
The fact that this commission was not a congressional body caused a lot of people to question the applicability of that principle, but be that as it may, it was the basis, we were told, of the president's stand -- until the pressure built up again, raising fears it could undercut the president's re-election campaign. Once again, the White House relented.
Then came the news that the administration had withheld from the 9/11 commission thousands of pages of counterterrorism documents (two-thirds of the total) from the Clinton administration that presumably reveal what the Democrats had done and, more importantly, what they had passed on to the incoming Bush administration.
President Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, trying to explain the White House policy, was quoted by The New York Times as saying some documents had been withheld because they were "duplicative or unrelated," and others because they were "highly sensitive." McClellan added a comment revealing the arrogance of the White House toward this whole investigation, saying, "We are providing the commission with access to all the information they need to do their job."
Well, that created a new firestorm, and the following day the White House backed down again, or seemed to. Members and some staff of the commission can go and read the documents in question, McClellan says, but he wouldn't say whether the White House would actually hand over copies. Furthermore, commission members and others felt that this raised a question about whether the White House has withheld similar Bush administration papers.
Once again, the president and his team have resisted cooperation with the commission, claiming principle, budget constraints, secrecy, irrelevance, duplication -- everything but the kitchen sink -- as its reasons, only to relent under pressure. The entire history of this investigation raises the question of whether the administration recognizes any principle higher than re-election.
There is no reason why this commission of important and responsible leaders from both sides of the political aisle should have to accept these continued insults to its integrity by an administration that demonstrates repeatedly its own lack of integrity so flagrantly.
When the commission's work is done, will the nation feel confident that it knows what can be known about how and why 9/11 happened, and what truly needs to be done to prevent a recurrence? Not at this rate. That assurance might have to await an assessment by a future body unhampered by the meddling of an administration whose resistance arouses suspicions that it has something -- perhaps much -- to hide in failing to protect the nation on 9/11.
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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite
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