- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

It was the Navy's ultimate press coup, only it wasn't the VIPs on the USS Greeneville submarine who were doing the spinning. What was supposed to be a demonstration exercise to get 16 business leaders to "spread the word about the Navy," in the words of Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Chun, ended with the destruction of a Japanese fishing vessel and the presumed deaths of nine crewmen and students. With the news that civilians were at two of the control stations during the exercise, both the Japanese and the American people have started asking their leaders hard questions. The court of inquiry could convene as early as Thursday, though it may be some time before we have any real answers. However, the incident has also posed the more enduring question of how political and military leaders affect the public trust through their communication following such a tragedy.

Though most experts on the issue have insisted that civilian involvement in such training exercises is routine, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that no evidence exists that the visitors' presence contributed to the accident, the question remains: Why didn't the Navy report the civilians' presence at the controls until four days after the accident? Initial statements by the Navy made clear that the crew had followed appropriate procedures to look for any object that would be in the submarine's path before it rose to the surface.

The Greeneville's captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, has been relieved of his duty and the Navy has suspended all civilian visits during emergency surface drills. If neither the officer nor the civilians were at fault, such actions do not make sense. Granted, the public should expect the Navy to conduct a thorough investigation before it begins listing the names of those who are responsible. But no-fault statements do more to fuel distrust than to allay it.

Japan has done its share to fuel public suspicions. As much as the Japanese have challenged the U.S. Navy for allowing civilians to be at the controls and not being forthcoming about it, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's own response to the disaster was reprehensible. Upon hearing about the Japanese vessel's fate, his reaction was to ask his secretary whether he could finish his golf game. This he spent the next two hours doing. President Bush, on the the other hand, lost no time in apologizing to the prime minister directly for the incident and called for prayer for the victims.

In the wake of an investigation that may yet take weeks or months, the Navy, the Japanese leadership and the American media would do well to follow the president's example. Patience tempered with humility earns public trust in a way that quick denials and accusations never will.

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