George W. Bush, it is true, did not create the FBI’s smug, insular, muscle-bound bureaucracy or the CIA’s well-known penchant for loopy spy tips and wrongheaded geopolitical analysis. But the President is now in the political cross-hairs for the failures of these agencies in identifying and understanding terrorist threats. And what’s wrong with that? Bush is President, after all, and it is mildly amusing to hear the conservative claque plead excusable ignorance or the complexities of governing as his alibi. The trouble is, this failure is too serious to amuse. The ineptitude preceding September 11 arguably heightens the gravest, most immediate threat to national security because, while the dangers may lurk in the twilight zone, they can, as we learned, turn real. Yet this nation is relying on two intelligence agencies that don’t even wish to talk to each other–and that not only failed to anticipate September 11 but that have also failed to locate Osama bin Laden, the man George W. Bush said he wanted “dead or alive,” or to identify the anthrax killer.

Instead of expressing a little executive impatience, even anger at possible misfeasance, this President responds, once again, by calling for more secrecy in government, more silence from his critics. And we’re not the only ones to suspect a connection between the cascade of Administration warnings about new threats and its wish to turn the public’s gaze away from its shortcomings.

The imperative now is to get a down-to-business accounting of the negligence or inertia that preceded September 11–a systematic inquiry that is not a headhunting exercise but could begin the long-overdue reformation of FBI and CIA operating practices. Whether this is the Congressional investigation already under way or a new independent commission such as Senator Daschle wants, the results will be persuasive only if the public learns a lot more, not less, about how to cope with this new era of shadowy threats. Also needed are elected officials willing to ask the Administration tough questions–fearlessly, in public forums, with no thought as to whether Dick Cheney will brand them as “irresponsible.”

If Bush were a leader of more substance, he would understand that a thorough ventilation is in his self-interest, both politically and otherwise. His green-yellow-red warning code is already a joke. Should terrorists indeed attack again, a rattled populace may begin to wonder, What did the President know? Where was the Vice President hiding? If Americans are going to have to live with uncertainty for a long time, then the government owes them a grown-up conversation on the complexities, what is known and knowable, what is not. People can handle straight talk, but that’s not what they are getting.

This President used last fall’s tragedy to pump himself up as the resolute warrior who tossed complexity into the trash can. Bush’s I’m-gonna-get-you rhetoric described an open-ended series of battlefields ahead and did wonders for his ratings. But the complicated counterrealities have already blurred that picture, just as the recent revelations greatly diminish his luster as the straight-talking cowboy. Now he wants Americans to appreciate the gray areas and accept that some facts are unknowable. And please, don’t ask any more questions of your leader, because it’s unpatriotic.

Just one question, Mr. President: What else didn’t you tell us after September 11?