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Responsibility without Access

The National Security Council and Paul O'Neill.

by Barnabas
January 21, 2004

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Responsibility without Access_Barnabas-The National Security Council and Paul O'Neill
Discussing the case for the Iraq war in an interview with TIME, O'Neill, who sat on the National Security Council, says the focus was on Saddam from the early days of the Administration. He offers the most skeptical view of the case for war ever put forward by a top Administration official. "In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he told TIME… A top Administration official says of the wmd intelligence: "That information was on a need- to-know basis. He wouldn't have been in a position to see it."
- Time, January 19

Since its inception under President Truman, the function of the Council has been to advise and assist the President on national security and foreign policies. The Council also serves as the President's principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies.
– The White House Website
This commentary is not about Paul O’Neill. He is not the issue, only the occasion of it. He expects the public to believe him when he says that while on the National Security Council he never saw evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Under usual circumstances, some would believe him and some wouldn’t. That’s the way it is with people like O’Neill, who was fired from his position as Secretary of the Treasury. Those who don’t like him will not believe him on the grounds that he has a terminal case of sour grapes.

The circumstances are unusual, however. The administration freely admits that they withheld crucial information from him when he was a member of the National Security Council. "That information was on a need- to-know basis. He wouldn't have been in a position to see it," a top official says. Then what was he doing on the National Security Council? Why is there a National Security Council, if all its members don’t know what’s going on? The deliberations of the National Security Council were an insulting charade and a waste of time, if some of its members were construed by others as “not having a need to know” about weapons of mass destruction, the most pressing national security issue in those months.

O’Neill was given responsibility without access. In his case, it was access to information; sometimes it is access to authority or power. Weak and fearful leaders grant responsibility without access to people whose ideas and leadership they fear, in order to isolate them from leadership and neutralize their ideas.

Several years ago I was asked to sit on the bio-ethics committee of a local hospital. I knew something about it and was deeply interested, but when I learned that the medical and adminstrative staff could (and therefore likely would) ignore the committee at will, I declined the invitation. I wasn’t any big fish, but I had better uses for my time than to be part of a window-dressing committee.

So, if they evaluate their situation, do some members of the National Security Council have better uses for their time. The only ones who count are Those in a Position to Know - whoever they are.

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