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An Asian Enron

What did the Bush administration know, and when did it know it?

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The smug spirit of Enron pervades the Bush administration. When it learned that North Korea had a secret nuclear-arms program, it moved the disclosure off the books, lest it complicate the confrontation with Iraq. The information that Congress needed as it held another one of its self-proclaimed "historic'' debates was withheld -- a footnote known to only a few key members who, as did Enron's board, passively kept their mouths shut.

But Japan knew. President Bush personally told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on September 12th of this year. It was the same day that Bush addressed the U.N. General Assembly, providing the clearest rationale yet for going to war with Iraq. He said nothing in that speech about North Korea. Unlike Iraq, it is not plodding toward producing nuclear weapons. It may already have at least two.

Undoubtedly, other governments also knew that North Korea was cheating on the agreement it had reached in 1994 with the Clinton administration. It was supposed to abandon its nuclear-weapons program -- which, in a way, it did. But it started up another one, and this is the one that Washington started to substantiate last summer. Washington and Pyongyang had at least one thing in common: They were both keeping a secret from the American people.

In too many respects, the Bush administration operates as if it -- and not Congress or, for that matter, the American people -- owns this entity called the "government.'' It has told Congress to buzz off when it asked for documents telling who Vice President Cheney met with in formulating the administration's energy policy. Enron, perhaps?

It has been downright uncooperative in granting Freedom of Information requests from the news media and other interested parties. It fought a proposal to create an independent commission to investigate what went wrong before September 11th then reluctantly agreed to one and now has reneged on that agreement. The intelligence community, it seems, did just a swell job -- the hole in lower Manhattan notwithstanding.

The news that North Korea was developing nuclear weapons -- that it just might already have them -- might not have changed the course of the Iraq debate in Congress one bit. It does not change my mind. In fact, it confronts us with what might happen when a desperate, despotic power gets its hands on such weapons. The South Korean capital of Seoul is just 40 miles from the North Korean border. If North Korea really has a nuclear arsenal, not to mention the means to deliver it, war may well be unthinkable.

The North Korean program certainly complicates matters -- maybe in ways that I cannot envision. This is the virtue of debate: the teasing out of facts, arguments, positions that may have never occurred to you.

An important piece of information was withheld from me, from you, and our representatives in Congress. I am reminded of the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Secret to whom? Not the Cambodians. They surely noticed they were being bombed. Not the North Vietnamese. They knew too. The ones in the dark were the American people.

Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice deny that news about the North Korean program was withheld for political reasons. Bush needed time to study the matter, they insist. But he had plenty of time, and some of that time, Congress was engaged in the Iraq debate, playing the role of the oblivious board of directors. Bush is not that slow a learner. In fact, it was he -- remember? -- who included North Korea in his "axis of evil.'' What did he know then?

It would be one thing if this were an isolated example of the Bush administration either exaggerating threats -- the imminence of an Iraqi bomb, for instance -- or forgetting to mention one that already exists, such as the North Korea program. But this administration keeps one set of books for itself and another for the public and Congress. It's Enron on the Potomac.

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His work frequently appears in the Flyer.

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