BROOKE GLADSTONE: We heard over and over again: it was a shock and a surprise, what happened on September 11th. We could not have anticipated it nor defended ourselves against it. Yes, we were told our intelligence agencies had some warning of an attack, but without knowing the crucial where, when and how, much less the why, there was nothing they could do about it. But is that entirely true? Since 1999, a team chartered by Congress called The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century has attempted to penetrate the American consciousness with warnings that we were at risk from precisely the sort of attack we have sustained, right down to the risk to skyscrapers. But when the commission shopped its findings around to America's great newspapers and the networks, the response was less than the commissioners had hoped. Les Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was a member of that commission. Welcome to the show!
LES GELB: In January you had a good slice of the nation's print and electronic media assembled in a Senate hearing room to hear your findings -- findings, I should say, that were put together by a wide array of former military and intelligence officials, ambassadors, foreign policy experts, politicians and journalists. Do you think you got a fair hearing?
LES GELB: No! In fact I don't think almost anybody --public policy schools at universities or think tanks dealing with foreign affairs has had much of a hearing from the media about anything to do with the substance of policy for a long time! So frankly I wasn't surprised when we issued our report with all its alarming elements that the press by and large ignored it. You know, interestingly, Brooke, the public didn't ignore it! I don't know the exact figure, but there were well over one million hits on the public web site of the commission to look at that report!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But none of the networks covered it. CNN did. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LES GELB: Not, not so far as I can remember, no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a reasonably good response from the Washington Post and the L.A. Times--
LES GELB: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:-- but fighter pilot William Boyd [sp?], a 4-star general who was on the commission told one reporter that he watched in disbelief as the New York Times reporter left before the briefing was even over!
LES GELB: Well, I -- since I don't see very well, I didn't see that. But if Chuck said it, his eyesight is pretty good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you're a former editor of the New York Times Op-Ed page. You're a long time Times man. Can you speculate on what was going on there?
LES GELB: I don't think it's special to the Times. In fact I think the Times still reports more on substance than you'll find at any other newspaper in the United States. But I think there has been a general decline in the dailies, the weekly magazines and especially on TV in substantive reporting on policy issues! I heard from people in the media all the time! Their readers aren't interested in what's going on. My response to that is Americans have never been more involved in the world than they have been the last 10 years. We still have, you know, a 300 billion dollar plus defense budget; troops all over the world. Americans traveling all over the world. And you tell me that Americans have no interest in it? I don't believe it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well it sounds like if you got a million hits on the commission's web site then people did care. Usually that kind of public interest would inspire coverage, if nothing else, if for no other reason. Why do you think this didn't?
LES GELB: Well it didn't happen. I think you have to consult my former colleagues for, for their specific reason. It, it wasn't for lack of clarity in the commission report or for lack of effort on the part of commissioners to contact the press. And it's not just our commission either, Brooke. There were two other commissions on terrorism! One by the former, led by the former governor of Virginia, Gilmore, and another led by the former head of counterterrorism in the State Department, Paul Bremer! Those two commissions said pretty much what we said!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can we lay the entire blame for inaction on the commission's report on the media?
LES GELB:No. In part I lay it on ourselves; on the, the national security experts at universities and think tanks and wherever. And I, I, I lay it on my self too! And I think if I really was prepared to stand a hundred percent behind my words, why wasn't I jumping up and down every day, making a pest out of myself? And I think we, we didn't push the con--the consequences of what we were saying hard enough, so-- we're, we're responsible too. And secondly, Congress is also responsible. Congress can create a good focal point for the media if they pay attention to this as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Les Gelb, thank you very much.
LES GELB: Okay!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Les Gelb is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.