Toward the end of the recent two days of hearings of the independent 9/11 commission, Kristen Breitweiser and Lorie Van Auken, who each lost a husband in the horrific attacks, were near tears. Not of grief, but of rage. They had much to be angry about, as they and other 9/11 family members walked out of the hearings in protest. They were mad that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had refused to testify publicly. The White House had claimed that it would set a bad precedent and discourage future presidential aides from freely dispensing advice to the commander-in-chief. But in recent years other presidential advisers, including Tom Ridge, have testified before Congress. And Rice had no problem appearing on several television shows right before the hearings to talk about the Bush Administration’s deliberations in order to slam Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief in the Clinton and early Bush administrations, who had released a book accusing Bush of neglecting Al Qaeda before 9/11 and undermining the fight against Osama bin Laden with the war in Iraq. On March 29, George W. Bush retreated and announced that Rice could testify under oath before the commission.
But for Breitweiser and Van Auken there was reason to be upset beyond Rice’s no-show. They were infuriated that much of the questioning of the Clinton and Bush officials who did testify–the list included Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, CIA chief George Tenet, and former national security adviser Sandy Berger–was disjointed, lame or off-point. Much of it concerned Clarke’s book, with Republican members of the commission–especially former Illinois Governor James Thompson–helping the White House by seeking to discredit Clarke. “We fought to have serious hearings about the issues of 9/11,” Breitweiser said. “Instead we got a book review. This has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with why my husband and 3,000 people are not on this Earth. I can’t explain how hurtful this is.” Van Auken added, “The occasional fact seeped out–a little bit of the truth. But we want to replace these hearings with hearings on 9/11. This is not a game.”
They did have a legitimate complaint. The hearings were more melodramatic than enlightening. In his brief opening statement, Clarke apologized to the family members and flat-out acknowledged the obvious: that he and the US government had failed them. This was perhaps the most direct admission of guilt from any Clinton or Bush official and was one of the most effective opening statements I have seen in twenty-plus years of paying attention to Washington hearings. And Clarke’s face-off with Republican-appointed commissioners was gripping political theater. The White House that day released the transcript of a background briefing Clarke had given to reporters in August 2002, when he was still a White House official (but no longer the chief counterterrorism coordinator). Time magazine had just reported that the Bush Administration in the months before 9/11 ignored a plan proposed by Clarke to “roll back” Al Qaeda. At that briefing, Clarke, speaking on background (meaning his name could not be used by the journalists), defended the Bush Administration’s early actions regarding Al Qaeda.
Aha, Bush backers exclaimed, pointing to this transcript as proof Clarke had changed his tale to sell books. (The outing of background briefers by a White House is a rare, if not unprecedented, action.) But Clarke batted away questions about the briefing, noting that he had been asked by the White House to put the best spin on the situation. That’s what presidential aides are often requested to do, he explained. He had not been prepared to quit at that time, he maintained, so he engaged in SOP damage control. This explanation did diminish his position as a truth-teller, but it had an all-too plausible ring of truth. He had been a good soldier. In front of the 9/11 commission, he stuck to his argument that Bush had not treated the Al Qaeda threat with the seriousness it had deserved at the time.