The smug spirit of Enron pervades the Bush administration. When it learned that North Korea had a secret nuclear arms program, it moved the disclosure off the books lest it complicate the confrontation with Iraq. The information that Congress needed as it held another one of its self-proclaimed "historic" debates was withheld -- a footnote known to only a few key members who, as with Enron's board, passively kept their mouths shut.
But Japan knew. President Bush told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Sept. 12. It was the same day that Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly, providing the clearest rationale yet for going to war with Iraq. He said nothing in that speech about North Korea. Unlike Iraq, it is not plodding toward producing nuclear weapons. It may already have at least two.
Undoubtedly, other governments also knew that North Korea was cheating on the agreement it had reached in 1994 with the Clinton administration. It was supposed to abandon its nuclear weapons program -- which, in a way, it did. But it started up another one -- and this is the one that Washington started to substantiate last summer. Washington and Pyongyang had at least one thing in common: They were both keeping a secret from the American people.
In too many respects, the Bush administration operates as if it -- and not Congress or, for that matter, the American people -- owns this entity called "the government." It has told Congress to buzz off when it asked for documents telling whom Vice President Cheney met with in formulating the administration's energy policy. Enron, perhaps?
It has been downright uncooperative in granting Freedom of Information Act requests from the news media and other interested parties. It fought a proposal to create an independent commission to investigate what went wrong before Sept. 11, 2001, then reluctantly agreed to one -- and now has reneged on that agreement. The intelligence community, it seems, did just a swell job -- the hole in Lower Manhattan notwithstanding.
The news that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons -- that it just might already have them -- might not have changed the course of the Iraq debate in Congress one bit. It does not change my mind. In fact, it confronts us with what might happen when a desperate, despotic power gets its hands on such weapons. The South Korean capital of Seoul is just 40 miles from the North Korean border. If North Korea really has a nuclear arsenal, not to mention the means to deliver it, war might well be unthinkable. This, too, could happen with Iraq.
But the North Korean program certainly complicates matters -- maybe in ways that I cannot envision. This is the virtue of debate -- the teasing out of facts, arguments, positions that might never have occurred to you. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, for instance, I did not much consider whether toppling the Iraqi regime might also topple some others. I did not dwell on what would happen when Saddam Hussein was gone -- who would govern the country and whether in fact it would be governable. I was enraged. It was enough.
The debate -- the one in Congress, to some extent, but really the one conducted on the op-ed pages of newspapers -- was extremely instructive. My bottom line did not change, but it wavered from time to time. I wanted all the facts, and in the end I thought I had them.
Not so, it turns out. An important piece of information was withheld -- from me, from you and from our representatives in Congress. I am reminded of the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Secret from whom? Not from the Cambodians. They surely noticed they were being bombed. Not from the North Vietnamese. They knew, too. The ones in the dark were the American people.
Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice deny that news about the North Korean program was withheld for political reasons. Bush needed time to study the matter, they insist. But he had plenty of time -- and some of that time Congress was engaged in the Iraq debate, playing the role of the oblivious board of directors. Bush is not that slow a learner. In fact, it was he -- remember? -- who included North Korea in his "axis of evil." What did he know then?
It would be one thing if this were an isolated example of the Bush administration either exaggerating threats -- the imminence of an Iraqi bomb, for instance -- or forgetting to mention one that already exists, such as the North Korean program. But this administration keeps one set of books for itself and another for the public and Congress. It's Enron on the Potomac.