President George W. Bush has become the new Kenneth Lay. As chief executive officer of the former juggernaut Enron Corp., Lay presided over a network of deception and malfeasance that led to one of the greatest investor ripoffs in U.S. corporate history. Enron inflated reported income and conducted much of its business through off-balance-sheet transactions hidden from analysts, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the general public.
In public, Bush repeatedly denounces these "serious abuses of trust by some corporate leaders." But given the disturbing sleight of hand manipulations by his administration regarding the search for weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, in Iraq, the president seems to be more inspired than repulsed by Lay's deceptive wizardry.
Bush has triggered a tectonic shift in the management of official secrets, hiding more from the public across all policy sectors -- not just national security -- than any president since the conspiracy-obsessed Richard Nixon. He has fostered a White House culture that is casual about facts and is comfortable with making unsubstantiated national security assertions.
One of the major violations of trust between this president and the American public is his unqualified assertion in his January 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq maintained an extensive WMD program and sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Bush's comfort with concealing inconvenient facts is equally evident in the burying of a Treasury Department report on the long-term economic impact of growing budget deficits and an Environmental Protection Agency study on global warming and potential remediation strategies. This president does not like bad news or news that conflicts with his agenda -- no matter how objective -- even if it is commissioned by members of his own Cabinet.
U.S. citizens are this nation's stakeholders, and the president has been misleading the public, distorting fact, and contriving false realities with the aim of sending men and women into harm's way. No serious commentator denies the horror and tragedy that a virulent and dangerous form of transnational terrorism visited upon symbols of American power in New York and Washington on 9/11, but Bush's incursion into Iraq is controversial not because America should not be able to strike at those responsible for imminent threats to this nation but because it is increasingly unclear that Saddam Hussein, as despicable a tyrant as he was (and there are many more in the world), was an immediate danger.
Hussein's removal was not worth the friendly fire inflicted upon longstanding alliances that America has needed in the past and will need again.
The president would do well to revisit his clever quip during the presidential debates regarding his favorite philosopher. He used to say that when confronted with a challenge, he would ask himself, "What would Jesus do?"
With some reflection, Bush would realize that little of his administration's obsession with secrets and its tendency to spin false truths would be consistent with this self-revealed touchstone of faith that he shared with the nation. More importantly, however, duplicity of the magnitude now unfolding in Washington is inconsistent with democracy.
Enron executives felt secure enough in their environment to mislead the public and enrich executives at the expense of stakeholders without accountability -- or to come out far enough ahead that any penalties would pale in comparison to their personal gains. This strategy worked until Enron's collapse, and now some are caught in the legal mechanism of accountability at a staggeringly large cost to the public. America's image in the world as a bastion of stockholder accountability, good governance and a place where hard, honest work leads to empowerment and potentially to wealth, was damaged by Enron-style crony capitalism.
Bush's team may eventually be held accountable for its deceptions, but the judiciary and the legislature appear remarkably contrite given what appears to be serious executive office malfeasance. America's current board of directors -- Congress and the Supreme Court -- like the boards of Enron, MCI, Adelphia and other top-tier blue chip firms that deceived investors and the nation, is failing in its responsibility to check a president who needs to be brought into line.
The fall of Enron and the ongoing prosecution of the worst at the company's helm depended on whistleblowers and average people at the firm who were willing to tell the truth about the crimes committed by Enron executives. Accountability rests on exposure and on a personal morality of honesty and commitment to public trust that many in this nation do feel and that did exist among many Enron employees whose livelihoods were ruined by Lay and his collaborators.
Today a national whistleblower is needed, someone in Bush's administration who can copy the foot-thick file of official secrets in his or her desk to reveal the overreach, fabrication and distortions of intelligence that the president used to deceive Congress, America's allies and the public in order to conduct the invasion of Iraq.
Bush has called those who question his assault on Iraq and the legitimacy of this incursion "historical revisionists." But the term applies more appropriately to this Ken Lay-like president/CEO who seems to have only disdain for the constraints of our kind of government. For all the pretense of his early statements that his would be a "presidency defined by humility and honesty," and an administration that "would inspire trust from its citizens," it has turned out to be anything but.
Many in the nation admire and respect the leadership qualities of this president. But someone in government today needs to expose the now-classified and cloaked record of what the president knew about the Iraq WMD intelligence gap and when he new it, to paraphrase former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker about Richard Nixon.
Americans deserve honesty, and if there is malfeasance, Congress and the courts should not let it be buried in a labyrinth of official secrets for future generations to uncover.
Copyright 2003, The Japan Times