WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the movie "A Few Good Men," Jack Nicholson, playing a crusty Marine colonel at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, angrily tells Tom Cruise: "Truth! You can't handle the truth." The same might be said of those populating the corridors of power when truth "happens" in our nation's capital.
Unfortunately for the potentates on the Potomac, the war on terrorism has prompted an unprecedented wave of "near truth experiences" that has official Washington in a tizzy. Their concern? If it keeps up, the American people may be subjected to the Cold Hard Truth about terrorism -- and no one knows if they can handle it.
Take for example what happened to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer when he speculated on culpability for the violence in the Middle East that has claimed the lives of more than 900 Palestinians and nearly 300 Israelis since September 2000. In response to a reporter's question on Feb. 28, Fleischer said, "You can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon (at Camp David), more violence resulted. ..." The clear implication was that Bill Clinton's effort to win the Nobel Peace Prize by sequestering Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains during the summer of 2000 had precipitated the current wave of terror attacks and reprisals.
The response from the Clinton defenders was swift and sure. Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, called Condoleeza Rice to whine. Maddy Albright, the Clinton era's dancing diva of diplomacy, groused. And just hours after his comment, Fleischer recanted. In a rare written statement, he said that he had "mistakenly suggested that increasing violence in the Middle East was attributable to the peace efforts that were under way in 2000."
Baloney. Fleischer was right the first time. The Camp David talks were a disaster. Barak was pressured into making historic concessions -- which Arafat rejected in the mistaken belief that the United States would be able to push the Israelis even further. The unfulfilled expectations arising from the process fueled the Intifada -- which Arafat exacerbated with fiery rhetoric -- and by turning loose the suicide squads of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad Organization and Hizbollah. Fleischer had spoken the truth the first time. He should have stuck with it.
Two of the men Clinton appointed to head the CIA are also telling some uncomfortable truths about what went wrong in the previous administration. Former Director of Central Intelligence Jim Woolsey had a devastating appraisal of the Clinton administration's way of fighting terrorism for my radio audience last week. He said: "The approach, even after the first (1993) attack on the World Trade Center, was to ignore the intelligence, treat the perpetrators as criminals and fire off a few cruise missiles. We simply lost all credibility."
George Tenet, the incumbent DCI, may have had his predecessor's words in mind when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. He told the solons, "Bin Laden did not believe that we would invade his sanctuary. He saw the United States as soft, impatient, unprepared and fearful of a long bloody war of attrition."
The day after Tenet testified, U.S. troops in Afghanistan found a Global Positioning Satellite Receiver that had been taken from the body of one of the U.S. soldiers killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. Tenet also provided more proof of the direct connections between al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein -- evidence that has existed since the Clinton era. In this case, it wasn't only Democrats who didn't want to hear the truth. The senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee timorously expressed his anxiety that confronting Saddam might increase the risk of terror attacks against the United States -- as though appeasing dictators with weapons of mass destruction might somehow buy us protection.
And now, Gen. William Kernan, commander in chief of the Joint Forces Command, is giving the lie to the Clinton crowd's oft repeated refrain, "Bill Clinton built the forces that are winning the war in Afghanistan" -- a claim James Carville made during a debate with me a few weeks ago. According to Kernan, despite the activation of more than 80,000 reservists, the forces Bill Cohen claimed to be adequate to fight two major wars are now stretched so thin that next year the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will have to increase by more than 51,000 recruits beyond the 185,000 already programmed.
As Ari Fleischer learned the hard way, there is great anxiety in Washington about hearing the truth. In Congress, the fear is palpable. The Congress shirked its responsibility when it came to a declaration of war in the aftermath of 9-11. It has dithered the winter away on campaign finance reform debates and investigating Enron. If we are to repair what needs to be fixed to fight terrorism, the Congress must first investigate what went so terribly wrong in the last decade to make us this vulnerable. They are going to have to get at the truth -- even if it means hurting Bill Clinton's feelings.