Ignoring the Warning  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

Ignoring the Warning   

The national media, like the federal government, didnít pay much attention to a high-level commissionís dissection of the nationís security weaknesses in the face of terrorist threats.

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


Warren Rudman was riding in a taxi September 11 listening to public radio when he heard that terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center. The former Republican senator from New Hampshire was anguished. Not long before, he had presided over a congressionally mandated study on national security that had first among its conclusions: "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers" within the next two decades.

The attack left Rudman and his commission co-chair Gary Hart wondering why so few in the media had taken the report seriously. The Hart-Rudman commission, a blue-chip, bipartisan panel, included high-ranking military officers, prominent intellectuals, former Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress; among its members were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director James Schlesinger and Leslie Gelb, one-time New York Times national security correspondent and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Working without compensation, the 14 commissioners spent more than two years and $10 million analyzing the nation's security system and proposing ways to strengthen it.

Released on January 31, the final report declared the nation unprepared to deal with terrorism and called for a fundamental change in national security. If enacted, the recommendations would have meant the most significant policy overhaul since a similar commission in 1947 led to the creation of the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Air Force and the Defense Department.

The report earned at most a few news stories in the nation's leading newspapers--the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and USA Today--played somewhere in the middle of the front sections or, in the case of the Wall Street Journal, buried in a roundup of Washington briefs, according to a Lexis-Nexis search. Of the three leading networks, only CBS aired a segment on the report, says Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network nightly news offerings, adding, "That's what you got for your 10 million bucks."

Until September 11, it appeared as though the findings of the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century were destined to live among the millions of pages of federally funded reports lining the shelves of an obscure federal document repository. But the terrorist attack illuminated national security problems so serious that previous attempts to solve them now seem akin to putting a Barney Band-Aid on an exit wound. By shining a light so stark on the failings of the agencies charged with securing the United States against its enemies, the attacks also raised serious questions about the media's ability to monitor the departments of government that the public depends upon for its protection.

After September 11, with the report seven months old and the commission disbanded, "we were flooded with [media] calls," says Lee Hamilton, a member of the commission who is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The commission's work has since been cited in major dailies across the country and highlighted on the network news. "We're everywhere," echoes Adam Garfinkle, the report's editor. Among its findings, the commission described dysfunction not only in the State and Defense departments but also within many other agencies charged with defending the country against terrorism, including the nation's intelligence community. Calling the State Department a "crippled institution, starved for resources by Congress because of its inadequacies," the commissioners suggested restructuring it, along with changing the way Congress and the White House work together and creating a National Homeland Security Agency to coordinate the various bureaucracies' competing interests--an office that was established after the September 11 attacks.

"All of sudden, everybody's saying, 'Hey, look at this stuff, it's right on the nose. Why didn't we hear of this before?' Well, ask the press," says Garfinkle. "They didn't take it seriously. They figured, 'You'll never get this stuff done. It's fantasy.' Clearly, it's not."

Reporters who wrote about the findings before September 11 cite several reasons why the story had no legs: The report was DBI--dull but important--about the sort of government restructuring that never gets done in Washington, says Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson. Besides, says the Los Angeles Times' Norman Kempster, similar predictions about a terrorist attack on U.S. soil made the commission's dire prediction of impending doom "essentially a throwaway line. Twenty-five years is a long time." USA Today's Steven Komarow agrees. The report's findings "didn't seem to me to be a radical notion," he says. Adds the New York Times' Steven Lee Myers, the commission's three sets of findings, issued separately, seemed repetitive. "The nature of our business is to report, 'so and so says this.' What are you supposed to do? Keep saying it?"

But for Garfinkle and others, questions remain. Why, for instance, did no journalist thoroughly investigate the dysfunctional agencies cited in the report? Why was there no story about how the report attracted so little serious examination? If the findings were indeed repetitive, where was the inquiry into why the commission spent $10 million with so few results? If reputable agencies and public officials had warned of a terrorist attack, why have so few news organizations explored the depth and breadth of that belief?

Recalls Garfinkle, the media's "response was, 'It's interesting,' or 'It's too far-fetched,' or they wanted to know, 'Where's the news hook?' Or they said, 'When you get to the end and get to all the controversial stuff, call me back.' We did call them back, and they still didn't write it."

The report, though several hundred pages long, is accessible and generally well-written, with wide-ranging conclusions and recommendations not only to restructure more than 40 agencies but also to significantly improve science and math education. In the first of a trilogy of findings issued from September 1999 to February 2001, the commission outlined the country's national security problems and released its now-famous cri de coeur about Americans dying in large numbers on American soil.

Former Colorado Sen. Hart and the commission's executive director, Gen. Charles G. Boyd, met with editorial board members at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. "We got some serious yawns," recalls Boyd, "and that was about it."

The second report, released in the spring of 2000, was more theoretical, focusing on a security strategy to deal with evolving world threats. It received almost no coverage. Commission consultant Bill Wise volunteered to try to attract more attention for the third and most important installment. A former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore and a retired Air Force colonel, Wise says the commission wanted to release the findings in December 2000, after the presidential election but before the inauguration, when "people are looking for new ideas." Most important, Wise says, he wanted "to get a press conference story from the five national newspapers." But the report remained unfinished in December, so the commission moved its release date until after George W. Bush's inauguration.

"That meant getting any media attention at all would be difficult," Wise says. Nonetheless, the commission again targeted the most influential reporters and opinion page editors, offering embargoed, advance copies to journalists at the Washington Post and the New York Times, recalls John Dancy, a member of the commission and a former chief diplomatic and senior White House correspondent for NBC News. "We wanted it to go out at one time, not go dribbling out. That's how it works here: If the Times gets something, the Post ignores it. And vice versa. You didn't want a major newspaper ignoring the story because the competition got it first."

Dancy talked to CNN's David Ensor, an old friend from his days as a political correspondent, expecting a reaction very different from the one he got. "As a journalist, had I been reading [the report] for the first time, I would have said, 'Gee! Really! Wow! No kidding!' I didn't find that kind of response from him. He was matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He wanted to know, 'What's the big deal about this report?' We had written, 'Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.' All of us without question believed this was going to happen. This wasn't stuck in there to make the reporters pay attention."

Ensor says Dancy mistook his reporting style for ennui. "I was very interested," says Ensor, CNN's national security correspondent, who was working on a story about homeland security when the commission released its final findings. In fact, CNN gave the commission its most extensive exposure on television before September 11, including Ensor's several broadcasts, in which he noted that the United States is not only "vulnerable to catastrophic attack" but "lucky there have not already been more incidents on American soil like the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993."

Ensor was among the dozens of reporters who attended a news conference on January 31 in the Mansfield Room on the Senate side of the Capitol. With the exception of a presidential briefing, the meeting was "about as big as it gets," says Dancy. "The room was filled with cameras, with maybe 50 print reporters sitting in front. Somebody had done a good job in getting the word out."

But the results were mixed. While the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and dozens of regional papers published stories, albeit inside the paper, "we got zero from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times," says consultant Wise. Network nightly news largely overlooked the findings, too, most likely "because there are so many reports released on any given day that we tend to cover them only when concrete action is taken," one network news executive speculated, "or all hell was breaking loose in some part of the world." Coincidentally, on the same day, a Scottish court convicted a Libyan of murdering 270 people in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, what the Post called "one of the deadliest acts of international terrorism in recent decades." But the networks failed to see a connection between the report on national security and the airliner's bombing.

Wise believes the failure to report on the commission's findings had far more to do with the New York Times than with anything else. "The networks use the Times for their agenda," he says. "When the New York Times makes a news judgment that your story is not important, then you suffer. And that's what happened." Though some in the commission thought a New York Times reporter had attended the news conference, none did, says Washington Bureau Chief Jill Abramson. "A false rumor is being spread that a New York Times reporter attended the press conference and left," she says, adding: "That's all I have to say."

More than a year earlier, in September 1999, Times Pentagon reporter Myers had written 574 words on the first phase of the commission's findings for page seven of the paper's front section. "The report makes grim predictions about crises and threats at home and abroad," Myers noted, adding the government had made similar predictions before.

A few days later, Myers did a page-one piece on the Pentagon's attempt to retool its recruiting strategies, a story that also came out of the Hart-Rudman report. And on September 5, 2000, Jane Perlez wrote about personnel problems at the State Department, citing the Commission on National Security. But the Times never followed up with a story on the commission's final recommendations, angering Hart, Rudman and Garfinkle. "They ran absolutely nothing; they completely ignored us. We just couldn't understand it," Garfinkle says. "It was like some edict came down at the New York Times: Avoid the Hart-Rudman commission at all costs. They wouldn't even publish a letter to the editor. And I still don't know why." Adds Rudman: "I found it astounding that [the New York Times], the supposed newspaper of record in this country, never did a story."

Top New York Times editors did not respond to numerous requests for interviews.

Wise was most pleased with the Los Angeles Times story, he says, a 991-word article published on page four of the front section. Reporter Norman Kempster wrote of the commission's warning of an impending terrorist attack, though in a recent interview, he minimized its importance. "Number one, you can't check on it. Number two, it's close to a tautology: It's going to happen. Vague warnings that something bad is going to happen in some period of time don't really tell you a lot," he says. "But having just disparaged those warnings, I thought they made a pretty good point, and they had it pretty well documented."

So why didn't he follow the story? Though Kempster covers diplomacy and security, the findings were "not in my area to follow up on," he says. He passed various parts of the report on to specialists. A week later, in response to one of the commission's recommendations to refocus the National Guard's mission to responding to domestic terrorist attacks, the L.A. Times published a 907-word story on page A19 with the headline: "Guard Likely Would Resist Domestic-Only Role."

The Washington Post's Steve Mufson says he received "more than the average number of calls" from readers after a 979-word news story on the commission's findings ran on page two of the Post's news section. "Some people called asking to know more about the report, encouraging me to write about it more." But Mufson, who covers foreign policy for the paper, never did. "Just because we tend to do the day-to-day stuff on this beat. It was not a day-to-day story. It was more a long-term story, a government-restructuring story. It didn't seem anything was about to happen imminently on it."

The report probably received so little coverage because "it slips between beats," Mufson speculates. "Could it be Pentagon? Congress? Foreign policy? It didn't fit neatly into one area." In the end, the media considered the findings, though sensational in a policy-wonk sort of way, as "just another commission report," says editor Garfinkle, in a town filled with so many commission reports. "We virtually never write about them," Mufson adds; he made an exception because "there were a fair number of people on the Hill, policymaking types, who were pretty interested in the subject.

"But, really, what's it about? It's about government reorganization in the end," he says. "Which isn't to say it's not important, but part of their solution was government reorganization of a sort that wasn't going to happen, at least not without the event we just had. Even with this catastrophe, you're still not going to get the sweeping government reorganization recommended in this report. Which is unfortunate, but there you go," he says. "We wrote about it so people who are interested in it would know it's out there."

Myers, of the New York Times, agrees. "The report was interesting and noteworthy, and we did note it," he says, adding that he is speaking for himself and not the newspaper. "The fact is: Lots of people have warned that the U.S. faces military attack. Terrorism is something people live with. It's clearly an issue that needs to be addressed. But in a city where commissions put out reports all the time, it's too easy to look back and say, 'We had all the answers.' I'm not sure anybody does."

Rudman concedes that point. Listening to the news on September 11, he says the "sick feeling that we had predicted it" gave way to the knowledge that even if all the commission's recommendations had been adopted immediately, "it probably wouldn't have made a difference."

In the weeks since the attack, news organizations nationwide have resurrected the commission's findings, with headlines proclaiming: "Years of Unheeded Alarms" (New York Times); "High Level Studies Warned of Threat" (Washington Post); " 'We Predicted It.... Why Didn't Anyone Listen?' " (Salon). Columnists like the Post's Richard Cohen have criticized the media for doing "a miserable job preparing the American people for what happened on September 11," for failing to document "a massive intelligence failure" that allowed so many terrorists to slip through so many checkpoints and kill so many people. Cohen admits he never found time to talk to "a guy" on "one of those government terrorism commissions...who used to say I ought to talk to him.

"I was negligent," he wrote, adding, "We--and I mean most of us--were asleep."

###