Richard Reeves

Gary Hart: The Man Who Knew Too Much

DENVER -- At the Tattered Cover, the best bookstore in town, you can buy what might have been for $30. The title is "Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change."

The 146-page book is the final report of the Hart-Rudman Commission, more formally known as The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a government commission created in 1998 during the Clinton administration to evaluate changes in national security threats and organization after the Cold War. The co-chairmen were two former senators, Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat, and Warren Rudman, the New Hampshire Republican.

Published on March 15 of this year, the report urged the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and said such things as:

-- "The combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the United States homeland to catastrophic attack."

-- "A direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter-century. The risk is not only death and destruction but also a demoralization that could undermine U.S. global leadership. In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structure."

-- "The intelligence community should emphasize the recruitment of human intelligence sources on terrorism as one of (its) highest priorities."

That was submitted to President Bush and Congress almost exactly six months before the terrorist attacks that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September.

Well, six months is not such a long time in such matters. Right. But the bipartisan 14-member commission appointed by then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen early in 1998 had, in fact, begun issuing such warnings more than two years ago. On Sept. 21, 1999, phase one of the three-phase report stated:

"While conventional conflicts will still be possible, the most serious threats to our security may consist of unannounced attacks on American cities ... germ warfare, well-planned cyber-attack on the air control system on the East Coast of the U.S. ... Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."

It happened that I was having dinner with Hart, who practices international law now and took time off to earn a doctorate in political philosophy at Oxford University in England, on the day I bought the phase-three report -- it is also available on government Web sites -- and asked him how he learned of the World Trade Center attack. He said he had watched it on television like most everyone else.

"I just sat there tearing my hair out," he answered. "It wasn't that I thought a report could have stopped the attack, but because I knew nothing at all had been done to prepare for the possibility. The government was almost helpless."

What happened in the government was that President Bush politely thanked the commission, which included such prominent members as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and former House International Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton -- and then ignored the thing. The president ordered Vice President Cheney to come up with another plan turning such national security matters over to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), which deals with hurricanes and other acts of God.

That was that. Hart knew the commission's thoughts and warnings were dead. Actually, he knew before the president filed it away. During the press conference presenting the final report last March, he noticed that the reporter there from The New York Times walked out in the middle. Later, he asked the correspondent why he did that. "He told me," said Hart, "and these are the exact words: 'This isn't important. None of this is ever going to happen.'"

But it did happen. On Sept. 11 of this sad year.

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