Navy should give details of sub tragedy now

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's San Jose Mercury News:

It was a horrible accident - a heart-wrenching coincidence that the U.S. submarine Greeneville surged to the surface at the very spot where a Japanese fishing boat carrying 13 high school students was coasting near Hawaii.

But the reaction of the Navy and the government in general since Friday has only compounded the horror. Increasingly, it appears possible that unprofessional behavior on the submarine contributed to the deadly collision, which has left nine people, including four students, lost at sea. The slow and still inadequate flow of information from the Navy has helped to create that impression.

Bad enough that the sub's crew made no attempt to help the Japanese victims, a fact that has caused pain to the survivors and the victims' families. But now we learn that civilian guests were not only aboard the submarine but were sitting at key controls when the crash occurred - a fact that was too slow in surfacing, and that still begs for further explanation.

On Wednesday, Naval officials said the admiral investigating the collision was considering a line of inquiry that could lead to criminal charges against the captain or others. This is unofficial information at this point, but more encouraging than any of the official pronouncements that have come out so far.

The Navy says it would have been unsafe for the submarine itself to open its hatch in churning seas and attempt to take survivors on board. That may be true. But when, days later, it turned out that some 15 civilians were aboard the sub, people could hardly be blamed for speculating that the decision to keep the Greeneville closed up might have been for a different kind of self-protection.

The Navy still refuses to say who the civilian passengers were, citing their right to privacy. At best they have been witnesses to a deadly international incident; at worst, their presence may have contributed to it. The public has a right to know who they are. Involvement in an incident like this supersedes a right to privacy.

Accidents happen all the time in military training missions. It's sad enough when our own soldiers and sailors die. But there is a special horror in the loss of civilian lives -- particularly people from another land; particularly children.

When will we learn that full disclosure of information about these incidents is the only way to blunt anger? The details always come out sooner or later, and they always look worse when they're dragged out one by one, through cracks in a wall of resistance.

The official investigation will take time. But the American and Japanese people have a right to know as much as possible now. The identity of that group of civilians would be a good place to start.

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