A pair of witnesses

Two federal employees, both with decades of distinguished government service, testified before Congress in the week of March 22, and each caused a storm. Richard A. Clarke, until last year President George W. Bush’s chief of counterterrorism, sparked heated debate because his testimony questioned not only the president’s vigilance prior to 9/11, but the wisdom of diverting the focus of the war on terrorism from pursuing Al Qaeda to toppling Saddam Hussein. Later, Richard S. Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare, spelled out the staggering costs of the new Bush Medicare law, costs that greatly exceeded what the administration had been saying publicly. Foster’s figures, compiled last year, were ones the administration had warned him, under threat of dismissal, not to reveal before Congress passed the bill.

No one should envy a government bureaucrat’s plight (except, perhaps, the 40 million-plus Americans who lack health-care benefits), particularly those bureaucrats in the higher ranks of government. Their jobs can include long hours, insoluble problems, limited pay, and little praise. In Clarke’s unbureaucratic and apt phrase, such employees are often given “all of the responsibility and none of the authority.” Even when they appear before Congress, unless directly asked for their personal assessment, they are expected to toe the administration line.

The heartening thing about the testimonies given by Foster and Clarke was that each man seemed straightforward and believable-Clarke perhaps because he is now out of government, Foster because the effort to mute him backfired. Many people concluded that Foster and Clarke are the sort of individuals you would be delighted to have working for you. Perhaps the candor of their testimony, coming in tandem, albeit in different contexts, will shake something free: a desire for and interest in truth in the body politic.

Clarke’s appearance before the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States was riveting. He began by stating what everyone knew but had lacked the courage or compassion to say: “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.” He apologized “to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11,” asking for their understanding and forgiveness. It was a public confession that struck a deep chord and provoked applause.

Stung by both Clarke’s criticisms and his recently published best-selling book (Against All Enemies, Free Press), the Bush administration and its allies launched a counterattack that took on the tenor of character assassination. Still, they could not hold everyone in line. Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Clarke’s defense, noting that Clarke was an expert in counterterrorism who had “served his nation very, very well.” (In light of David Kay’s January testimony before Congress, Powell had previously admitted that he might not have signed on to the invasion of Iraq had he known that no weapons of mass destruction were likely to be found there.)

Prior to Clarke’s public testimony, families of 9/11 victims had been critical of the special congressional committee’s soft questioning of witnesses. Following his appearance, they were critical of the committee’s descent into partisanship. It is now up to the panel’s able leaders, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, to restore propriety and a sense of truth seeking to the commission before it releases its final report in late July. That may prove impossible.

Richard Foster’s testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, coming in the same week as Clarke’s appearance, might have been as damaging to the credibility of the administration, had it commanded the same media attention. Still, as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter observed (March 29), the fact that President Bush either allowed or did not know that the numbers Foster called into question were being used to sell his vaunted prescription benefit plan is a true scandal. As a result, Alter wrote, “the Bush administration now has an old-fashioned credibility gap.” Last year, Foster, who had concluded the new entitlement would cost taxpayers 25 to 50 percent more than advertised, had been instructed to withhold information from Congress and was allegedly threatened with the loss of his job by then Medicare director, Thomas Scully. (Scully has since left government through the revolving door and is now working as a Washington lobbyist for health-care providers that stand to profit from the new law he helped craft.) Foster’s belated revelations came the very week the Medicare trustees announced that the program’s hospital trust fund would go bust by 2019, seven years earlier than predicted just last year.

The testimony of Foster and Clarke should open up the policy debate in the coming electoral campaign. Was it wise to go to war in Iraq-a country not involved in 9/11-in light of the growing threat of nonstate terrorism? Did it weaken our ties with allies, diminish the treasury, sacrifice countless lives, and drive more recruits into the arms of the terrorists? Was the administration’s expansion of Medicare benefits, which immediately spiked a rise in the cost of some prescription drugs, a political ploy aimed at the votes of senior citizens, and one that will have catastrophic, long-term effects on the elderly and the vulnerable? Thanks to Clarke and Foster, such questions can now be asked openly, seriously, and without impugning the questioner’s patriotism. In a democracy, that is how it should be.

Published in the 2004-04-09 issue: 
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