When Condoleezza Rice took the national stage on Thursday morning, her task was to defend President Bush against the accusation that he was inattentive to terrorism before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and to defuse a debate that threatens his re-election campaign. She mounted the defense vigorously, but in the hours after she returned to the White House, it was evident that she had not defused the arguments.
At every turn in her three hours of often-contentious testimony, she stuck to the White House script: Everything that could have been done to prevent the attacks had been done. She did not acknowledge failings, apart from the institutional tensions that have long plagued the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a culture that made it impossible for a succession of administrations to see the threat unfolding in front of them.
She also did not concede that the newly arrived Bush administration was part of that problem, or that it, too, underestimated what it confronted or was distracted by other issues like tax cuts, China and missile defense. Moreover, her tone — as controlled as her delivery at one of her Stanford seminars — left many panel members wondering if she was defending a position that several of them have publicly said is indefensible.
For viewers who have not been following the details of the argument, there was the lingering question of whether anyone in the Bush White House is capable of admitting error — a step many of Ms. Rice’s current and former colleagues said would help calm the political waters.
“If Dr. Rice wanted to change some minds, she needed to come out and admit that the administration — like so many of its predecessors — had made mistakes in addressing international terrorism,” said Ken Pollack, a former analyst at the national security council and C.I.A. and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. “Simply denying that this administration has underestimated the threat is unlikely to convince Americans who see the manifest failures of the United States government to address a systemic problem.”
Since I was out of the loop all day, I’ve been checking all the news sources as well as the other blogs for analysis, and the results aren’t pretty. I thought at best, Rice might at least walk away without doing any harm. I guess I gave her more credit than she deserved.
CAP has the bloody details.
Billman has the smoking gun
Here’s Fred Kaplan:
One clear inference can be drawn from Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 commission this morning: She has been a bad national security adviserâ€”passive, sluggish, and either unable or unwilling to tie the loose strands of the bureaucracy into a sensible vision or policy. In short, she has not done what national security advisers are supposed to do.
and even Bush leg-humper nonpareil Howard Fineman is running down the rope towards the dock:
A self-proclaimed expert at understanding “structural” change in large institutions, Rice wasn’t aware — may still not be aware — that the nature of her job had changed by the time she took over as national security adviser in January 2001. Reared in the Cold War era, she saw herself following in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger. “National security” was largely a matter of global state-to-state diplomacy.
In fact, as her predecessor in effect warned her when he was turning over the keys, the model was no longer so much Kissinger as it was, say, Elliott Ness or J. Edgar Hoover. If, as she said, we had been at war with terrorism for 20 years; if, as she said, the terrorists are determined to attack America, then the NSC chief has to be a ruthless hunter for clues around the world — and on American soil.
Asked at the hearing why she hadn’t pressed the FBI more closely about what it knew, or didn’t know, about domestic terrorist threats, she acted as though the question was an odd one: It wasn’t her job. Well, in retrospect, it was and now certainly is.
Rice, in the end, is just a cog in a machine. The real political question is: How did her testimony enrich the narrative of what the president did — or didn’t — know and do about terrorism before 9/11? In an interview with Bob Woodward, Bush admitted two years ago that he didn’t have a sense of “urgency” about al-Qaida. He said he wasn’t “on point” — wasn’t locked on a target in hunting dog fashion.
That admission caused few ripples when it was published. But now voters may revisit the remark. Why? Because it’s now clear that the president may have had urgent reason to be “on point.” Rice was told about al-Qaida cells by Richard Clarke in February of 2001. When, if ever, did she tell the president about them? The president was given the now-famous PDB of Aug. 6, 2001, which suggested not only that Osama bin Laden was “determined ” to attack inside the United States, but that the FBI had picked up a pattern that suggested the possibility of hijackings here. Did Bush follow up with the FBI? What did he do in the days immediately after getting that PDB? Rice may insist that it wasn’t a “warning,” but we’ll see soon enough when it’s released to the public, as it almost surely will be in the days ahead.
The president in the classroom: On vacation?
Remember the picture of the president in the classroom being told by Andy Card of the attack? The American people thought they were seeing a man suddenly thrust into a grave challenge no one could have anticipated. That won him enormous sympathy and patience from the voters. But what if he was literally on vacation — at the ranch in Crawford — when he should have been making sure that someone was ringing alarm bells throughout the bureaucracy?
During the Viet Nam war, President Lyndon Johnson watched as Walter Cronkite editorialized against the war on the evening news and then, supposedly, turned to his aides and commented: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” Now Howard Fineman is no Cronkite (he’s barely a Tim Russert and that’s a pretty low bar to reach) but this can’t be good news for George Bush as he ramps up his re-election campaign. Bush came into office (and let’s not get into the particulars of that at this moment) with his resume padded by the supposed strengths of Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Given the events of the past three years where we have come to see the ineptitude of Rice, the intransigence of Rumsfeld, and the acidic ooze of corporate corruption that is the lifeblood of Dick Cheney, you have to wonder why anyone would have any faith in this gang that can’t speak straight.
(Added: Wonkette’s description of Rice as “Tracy Flick”… friggin’ brilliant.)