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Necessary truths

WITH THE NATION dismayed by the laggardly, inept response to the devastation of New Orleans, there's an obvious need to identify all that went wrong.

That need is so obvious that the president himself last week promised to investigate, so obvious that the Republican congressional leadership postponed its latest spate of tax-cutting and announced a joint House-Senate inquiry.

Now, why does that look like an attempted whitewash? Could it be because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, according to spokesman Jim Manley, was only apprised of the Republican plans for a ''bipartisan" probe 20 minutes before the announcement was made? Reid wants an independent panel like the 9/11 Commission -- and he's exactly right.

The nation needs real answers and real accountability, and without such an independent commission, there's no reason to expect either from this president or this Congress. After all, just yesterday, the president called his own anticipatory action ''extraordinary." Of course, that astounding self-celebration shouldn't come as a surprise from a president who also initially lauded the post-Katrina efforts of FEMA director Michael Brown (or ''Brownie," as Bush dubbed him in that special camaraderie he seems to feel for the incompetent).

When Brown's failings became so manifest that even Vice President Dick Cheney could spot them, Bush still couldn't bring himself to fire the resume-embellishing hack outright. Sent back to Washington, Brown finally resigned yesterday.

Even as the Bush team, from the president on down, rebuffs questions of accountability by accusing critics of playing ''the blame game," the administration is, according to The New York Times, following a strategy of asserting that the principal problem lay with local and state officials.

Nor has the president shown any real interest in past investigations of government failures. He had to be dragged kicking and screaming to establishing the 9/11 Commission.

Meanwhile, he's shown again and again that loyalty trumps competence. Last December the president anointed his own instant Iraq War-era heroes, bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on, among others, former CIA director George Tenet. Recall that in its July 2004 report, the Senate Intelligence Committee said that most major judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's illicit weapons were ''either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting." The person most responsible for that estimate was Tenet, whose performance is said to be criticized harshly in a new, classified CIA inspector general's report.

Nor has the Republican-led Congress been much better about oversight and accountability.

Yes, the Senate Intelligence Committee did issue an initial report on prewar intelligence failures. The preelection agreement, however, was that after the election the committee would turn its attention to the way senior policy makers used that intelligence in the run-up to the war.

It has since become blindingly apparent that Senator Pat Roberts, the committee chairman, intends to retreat on that commitment. In a July 20 letter to US Senator John Kerry, the Kansas Republican made it clear that he doesn't see that as an important priority, and that even if his committee completes phase II, the results may not be made public.

Finally, in a time of huge budget deficits, there's considerable reason to believe that one of problems is that government at several levels has been squeezed for funds, both for projects like strengthening the New Orleans levees and for more routine aspects of disaster response.

Those deficits are a direct result of the administration's tax cuts. Extending those tax cuts remains a top priority for both Bush and the GOP congressional leadership. Indeed, only worries about how bad the timing would look last week persuaded the Senate leadership to postpone debate on repealing the estate tax, a repeal which alone would cost the federal government more than $70 billion a year.

A Republican leadership that shares Bush's conviction that his tax cuts should be made permanent can't be expected to offer an objective assessment of whether disaster prevention and response have been short-changed by the administration's fiscal policies.

All of that is why, in the aftermath of the New Orleans fiasco, what's called for is neither an internal administration investigation nor begrudging oversight by the Republican Congress. Rather, we need a clear-eyed, unflinching look by a bipartisan panel of respected, politically disinterested figures sitting on a fully empowered independent commission.

That way, the nation would have a real chance of learning necessary truths.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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