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Who Must Really Answer for 9/11?

Republicans running for re-election believe the American public will swallow another batch of lies and distortions about 9/11 -- but this time, Democrats are pushing back.
 
 
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As any casual political observer knows by now, Karl Rove has made himself famous for using national security as a political weapon against Democrats. In particular, Rove has pioneered a strategy of hiding the weaknesses of his own side, and targeting the strengths of his opponents.

We saw this in the 2002 mid-terms, when Rove masterminded the GOP's congressional campaign that ignored the fact that President Bush originally opposed creating a Department of Homeland Security, and then used Bush's Johnny-come-lately support for the concept to bash Democrats. We saw it in 2004 as well, when Rove deflected attention from Bush's embarrassing military absenteeism during Vietnam and spearheaded a vicious assault on the combat credentials of John Kerry, a Vietnam War hero.

Now, in 2006, Republicans seem to be following Rove's playbook in Ohio -- the site of the country's biggest and most closely-contested U.S. Senate race. But unlike the two elections before, Democrats this time are punching back. In the process, they are regrounding America's national security debate in facts, rather than dishonest rhetoric.

Over the last week, incumbent Republican Sen. Mike DeWine has launched ads showing images from Sept. 11, and attacked challenger Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown as supposedly weak on national security. DeWine bases his claim on a handful of votes Brown cast in the 1990s to cut intelligence funding and create more transparency in intelligence budgeting.

Sounds like a good strategy until you consider the message inherent in DeWine's attack: By criticizing Brown for having the guts in the 1990s to try to change a clearly misguided intelligence apparatus, DeWine is very publicly saying that he believes there was actually nothing wrong with our national security before Sept. 11, and that there was no need to reform America's intelligence budget from its Cold War days so as to make sure it was focused on America's real threats.

Put another way, he's going on record as an apologist for the massive intelligence failures that left our country vulnerable to attack in the first place. Of course, DeWine's skewed logic is a product of his justifiable desperation. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the 1990s, he was in a perfect position to demand much-needed changes in how our government was targeting our intelligence resources.

He was responsible for exercising oversight that might have helped redirect our intelligence resources in a way that could have prevented the attacks. Instead, he didn't lift a finger. Now embarrassed and running for his political life, he knows he needs to hide his record. So he is going with the Rove strategy of papering over his own irresponsible behavior and attacking his opponent's visionary foresight.

Unfortunately for DeWine and other Republican politicians following the Rove playbook this year, this strategy is more politically risky than the typical GOP ploys of the past because public opinion data shows voters realize the attacks are lies. A 2005 University of Maryland nationwide poll found that "a majority rejects the idea that net increases in the defense budget as a whole are necessary to fight terrorism." In fact, "When presented most of the major items in the discretionary federal budget and given the opportunity to modify it, Americans make some dramatic changes" with "the largest cut by far to defense spending."

The public, in other words, is not as stupid as Republicans like DeWine believe. Americans understand that a major part of what endangers this country's national security is a Congress that simply throws money at intelligence and defense programs without regard to whether that money is being spent in the best way possible to protect America against our most imminent threats.

And, as former Reagan Pentagon official Lawrence Korb has detailed in a recent study, there is a huge amount of money being wasted. "Over $40 billion in savings from wasteful Pentagon programs could be achieved quickly -- by cutting only the most egregious examples of misplaced priorities," wrote Korb. He details program after program "that are irrelevant in today's geopolitical reality" that could be eliminated, with the saved resources funding our most pressing national security needs.

Unlike in the past when some Democrats simply tried to avoid a security debate altogether, the Ohio Democratic Party has responded to DeWine's attacks with an ad making these points -- and making the point that if anyone in Ohio should have to answer for the failures that led to Sept. 11, it is Mike DeWine from his perch on the Intelligence Committee.

The Democrats, in short, are calling the Republicans' bluff -- and they have the facts on their side. The courageous few in Congress like Brown who had the guts to stand up in the 1990s and try to reform our intelligence budget priorities were the ones with national security foresight.

They were the ones who showed real leadership in trying to get America's national security policy focused on serious threats. And their obstacles in trying to fix the system before the attack came were people like DeWine.

To be sure, the historical revisionists like DeWine will continue to pledge their devotion to America's security, shamelessly invoke images of Sept. 11, and follow the Rove playbook. But with Democrats finally fighting back, no amount of dishonesty will be able to hide the simple truth: people like DeWine are the ones who stood by and did nothing as the threat to our country got worse.

They are the ones whose political cowardice and shortsightedness wrought deadly consequences. They are the ones, in sum, who this country can no longer trust to protect our national security.