. . . Thursday April 8, 2004

Rice Speaks

Condoleeza Rice made her much awaited appearance before the 9-11 commission on Thursday, as the administration was once again being accused of withholding information from the fact-finding panel (this time, information from the Clinton Administration era that Clinton has approved releasing).

Rice’s remark that is likely to spark the most debate is: “There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.” If I were running a terrorist organization, I’m not sure that would sound like altogether bad news.

Some other highlights:

“The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them. For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient. Historically, democratic societies have been slow to react to gathering threats, tending instead to wait to confront threats until they are too dangerous to ignore or until it is too late.”

“One of the most difficult problems in the Middle East is that the United States has been associated for a long time, decades, with a policy that looks the other way on the freedom deficit in the Middle East, that looks the other way at the absence of individual liberties in the Middle East. And I think that that has tended to alienate us from the populations of the Middle East.”

“We had a structural problem in the United States, and that structural problem was that we did not share domestic and foreign intelligence in a way to make a product for policymakers, for good reasons — for legal reasons, for cultural reasons — a product that people could depend upon.”

“We decided to put together a strategic approach to this that would get the regional powers — the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have a good counterterrorism person. The problem was you didn’t have an approach against Al Qaida because you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan. And you didn’t have an approach against Afghanistan because you didn’t have an approach against Pakistan. And until we could get that right, we didn’t have a policy.”

“I will tell you if we had known that an attack was coming against the United States, that an attack was coming against New York and Washington, we would have moved heaven and earth to stop it. But you heard the character of the threat report we were getting: something very, very big is going to happen. How do you act on something very, very big is going to happen beyond trying to put people on alert? ”

“And what I wanted Dick Clarke to do was to manage the crisis for us and help us develop a new strategy. And I can guarantee you, when we had that new strategy in place, the president — who was asking for it and wondering what was happening to it — was going to be in a position to engage it fully. The fact is that what Dick Clarke recommended to us, as he has said, would not have prevented 9/11. I actually would say that not only would it have not prevented 9/11, but if we had done everything on that list, we would have actually been off in the wrong direction about the importance that we needed to attach to a new policy for Afghanistan and a new policy for Pakistan.”

“I just have to say we may simply disagree on this with some of the commissioners. I do not believe that there was a lack of high-level attention. The president was paying attention to this. How much higher level can you get?” [editor's note: Uh, the Vice President...]

“I still believe to this day that the Al Qaida were prepared for a response to the Cole and that, as some of the intelligence suggested, bin Laden was intending to show that he yet survived another one, and that it might have been counterproductive.”

Overall, Rice was polished and her testimony probably helped the administration. In fact, the entire Rice fiasco might end up helping politically. Why? Because no one really blames one administration or the other for the actions and/or inactions before 9-11. And no one questions the response we made in Afghanistan. The debate over pre- 9-11 events only keeps the focus away from the two key and related issues that are at the core of this administration’s performance. First, are we really winning the war on terror and how is our public tone and our relationship with allies and foes helping or hurting this war? Second, was Iraq based on a series of exaggerations and lies and has our Iraq policy specifically damaged our efforts to stem the tide of terrorism and broadly lowered the esteem we hold among the nations of the world?

Concentration is important!