There must be accountability in the failed federal coronavirus response

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Scientists in the summer projected that the United States could have 300,000 deaths from coronavirus by the end of the year. We have now passed that devastating figure. Although President Trump faced the music at the ballot box, the response of the federal government to the pandemic must be subject to greater accountability. Americans deserve a historical record of the failure of the United States to contain the coronavirus. This can be done with a major commission mandated by Congress.

The response took place under the current administration. Much of the debate over the last four years around holding Trump accountable has focused on his possible criminal culpability. New York law enforcement authorities could bring criminal charges or civil penalties for activities he engaged in before he entered the White House, but it would be a grave mistake to allow a criminal investigation to serve as a proxy for historical accountability. Trump has also been the greatest proponent of criminal prosecution for political retribution. That should not become the norm.

The response of his administration to the pandemic must be researched, investigated, and written so there is a definitive and authoritative record. When such failure in office leads to over 300,000 deaths of Americans not caused by world war in less than a year, there must be a record of what occurred, who made critical decisions, how White House officials limited or otherwise interacted with the federal bureaucracy, and how agencies and their leaders acted. There must be no room for alternative facts.

The last major panel of this scope mandated by Congress was the 9/11 commission. Signed by President Bush in 2002, it had bipartisan support and had a team of lawyers, legislative staff members, and leaders from relevant executive branch agencies. Its investigation and report took two years and resulted in a volume of over 500 pages. This turned out to be a bestselling book read by hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Even though the 9/11 attacks happened on his watch, Bush signed the authorization into law and worked with the review, sitting for an interview and ensuring that his administration officials worked with the review. As a practitioner and scholar of national security, I have referred to the report for factual reminders and proposals since it was published.

In this case, we will not have to address whether Trump would authorize a coronavirus commission because that duty will fall to Joe Biden. The only barrier standing in the way of such a review would be a lack of consensus in Congress, but establishing a definitive record of what occurred and creating lessons learned for the federal government to do a better job protecting Americans should not be a partisan issue.

A coronavirus commission will have some advantages over the 9/11 review, but it will also face challenges that did not exist for that review. The advantages will be that the vast amount of information subject to investigation will not be classified. Far different than the substantial challenges of intelligence information and national security files in the 9/11 case, most pandemic information will be unclassified. Only a small subset of relevant information should involve intelligence on the early days of the pandemic, notably the initial outbreak in China.

But the challenges in this review will likely be a lack of collaboration, if not active efforts to thwart and deceive, from current administration officials. In order to curb such efforts, based on previous behavior and statements, like Trump declaring that the coronavirus was “rounding the corner” in the fall, the commission should have subpoena authority for records and witnesses as well as a statutory mechanism to enforce them.

In response to the 9/11 attacks, the federal government bolstered the national security arena by creating new agencies and laws that facilitated investigations, intelligence activities, and information sharing. With the pandemic, the United States has routinely had a death toll of one 9/11 a day. There is no aspect of our lives the coronavirus has not touched. Its presence is not an event and its effects will likely stretch for years to come. Americans need a definitive historical record.

Carrie Cordero is the Robert Gates senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law. She also served as counsel with the assistant attorney general for national security.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Election Government Medicine Politics President

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