The 9/11 commission continued to spin its wheels yesterday, praising Janet Reno for her "bold" leadership as attorney general. A commission that considers Reno "bold" is hopeless to understand the culture of weakness that made America vulnerable to attack. Attorney general Reno was more like a flaky supervisor at a New Age day care center than America's top cop. That Bill Clinton could get away with a frivolous appointment like Reno to such a vital job is itself proof of pre-9/11 laxity.
While the terrorists plotted, Reno was busy talking about "educare," the importance of education for toddlers, community policing, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She had an ideological distaste for punishment and a preference for feel-good "prevention" programs. This, more than any of the process-oriented questions that preoccupy the 9/11 commission, helps to explain the ambivalence across the agencies she controlled that now so perplexes the 9/11 commissioners. Didn't the commission members yesterday asking her about Bin Laden and assassination remember that she didn't support killing anyone? America's top cop was opposed to the death penalty. She gave lip service to official policy, but her interest in catching and killing bad guys was wan.
The only memorable displays of force under general Reno was when they weren't called for. Waco was a disaster and then there was the Good Friday raid on Little Havana. The only illegal immigrant Reno really ever got worked up over was a little boy. Even as Muslim terrorists were sauntering into the country without INS resistance -- in some cases not even bothering to change their names -- Reno was unleashing the military for the deportation of Elian Gonzalez. This was her "bold and gutsy" administration, to borrow one of the commissioner's phrases.
"I held her in my arms, and she wept," Justice Department official Eric Holder told the press about Reno's agony over Elian Gonzalez. But he didn't make the cut for her "educare" program.
Reno seemed more worried about the nation's youth than criminals. Her speeches as attorney general were more likely to be on toddler training than terrorism. In 1998, before an audience of the United Way, she spoke on the subject of "Success By Six."
"The experts tell me, and nobody has refuted it yet -- and I have repeated this again and again -- the child development experts tell me that zero to three is the time you learn the concept of reward and punishment and develop a conscience. What good are all the prisons going to be, years from now, if you don't understand what punishment means?," she said. "Fifty percent of all learned human responses are learned in the first year of life. What good are the best educational opportunities going to be, eight years from now, if that child does not have the foundation of learning? Let us not invest in just child care. Let's call it 'educare,' and let's do it from the beginning in the right way, involving the parents in every way we possibly can."
As the terrorists plotted, Clinton's top cop was hawking his child care programs. She made a pitch for "early childhood development," asking support for "President Clinton's child care initiative [which] proposes $3 billion for early learning programs and for improving the quality and the safety of child care for children in these earliest years. It proposes $7.5 billion to double the number of children receiving educare subsidies to more than two million by the year 2003." The attorney general also impressed the need for "Headstart and Early Headstart," and a take-children-to-work program at the Department of Labor.
The 9/11 commissioners seek to understand the security "culture" that made America a soft target. But they aren't likely to discover much when they can't even recognize that culture concentrated in the person before them.
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