Ignoring the Warning: The National Media, like the Federal Government, Didn't Pay Much Attention to a High-Level Commission's Dissection of the Nation's Security Weaknesses in the Face of Terrorist Threats

By Paterno, Susan | American Journalism Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Ignoring the Warning: The National Media, like the Federal Government, Didn't Pay Much Attention to a High-Level Commission's Dissection of the Nation's Security Weaknesses in the Face of Terrorist Threats


Paterno, Susan, American Journalism Review


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. …

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