Condoleezza Rice is fortunate that she only has to speak under oath when she appears before the 9/11 commission.

Her much-anticipated testimony to the panel investigating the 9/11 attacks overall was predictable. She vigorously defended herself, her administration and her boss from the charge that they had not assigned the al Qaeda threat sufficient importance prior to September 11. She could not bring herself to utter what Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator, called “the m-word”–that is, “mistake.” Instead, she only would note that “America’s response [to the growing al Qaeda threat] across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,” and she blamed that on the general tendency of democratic societies to be slow in reacting to “gathering threats.” (To prove her point, she cited the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania.) She repeatedly referred to “structural problems” that had long existed in the national security community as the primary reason for the failures–another word she did not mention once in her opening statement–that occurred on and before 9/11. As could be expected, the Republican-appointed commissioners tossed her easy questions, and the Democrats tried to zing her but were hampered by tight time restrictions. Still, the hearing produced information indicating that she and the Bush administration have not been straight with the public as they have attempted to convince America they were fully vigilant in the fight against al Qaeda prior to September 11.

This was particularly true of one of the main issues covered at the hearing: the Presidential Daily Briefing George W. Bush received on August 6, 2001, which included information on Osama bin Laden and hijackings. (PDBs are highly sensitive memos prepared by the intelligence community for the chief executive.) Rice’s handling of this dicey topic undermines her credibility. In May 2002, the White House, responding to a CBS News report, acknowledged that Bush had received this PDB and that the briefing had noted that bin Laden was interested in hijacking aircraft. This news caused a brief media and political frenzy. Had Bush ignored a warning that 9/11-like attacks were coming? The White House insisted (correctly) that the PDB did not state that al Qaeda was looking to hijack airliners and turn them into weapons. But Rice bent the truth to downplay the significance of this politically inconvenient PDB. The day the story was on the front pages, she held an on-the-record briefing at the White House. The August 6 PDB, she maintained, was “not a warning” but an “analytic report that talked about [bin Laden’s] methods of operations, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, 1998. It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and likely thing was they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives.”

She made it seem that the PDB had been a well, duh sort of report:

“This was generalized information that put together the fact that there were terrorist groups who were unhappy [with] things that were going on in the Middle East as well as al Qaeda operatives, which we’d been watching for a long time, that there was more chatter than usual, and that we knew that they were people who might try a hijacking. But, you know, again, that terrorism and hijacking might be associated is not rocket science.”

Since then, the precise contents of the PDB have been a matter of contention. At issue is whether Bush did receive a warning–or, at the least, troubling information–about al Qaeda a month before the attacks, and whether he responded appropriately. The White House has refused to declassify and release the PDB. It has also only allowed two of the ten members of the 9/11 commission to examine the document. And as the price for this limited access, the commission had to turn over the notes taken by the commissioners regarding the PDB to the White House for vetting. During her opening statement to the 9/11 commission, Rice noted that the PDB’s “content has been frequently mischaracterized.”

She did not say that she had been one of the first to mischaracterize this intelligence memo. But that is what the hearings showed.

In her opening statement, Rice noted that the team that had prepared the briefing had reviewed “possible al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States.” That is not what she had told reporters in May 2002. And under forceful questioning from Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, she disclosed the title of this PDB: “Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States.” She still maintained that the PDB had been only “historical information” and not a warning of any specific information. But the title suggested it was more than a restatement of the obvious, which is how Rice had first depicted it. Ben-Veniste further revealed that the briefing had noted that al Qaeda operatives had been in the United States for years and that bin Laden’s network had long maintained a support system in America.

As Ben-Veniste continued to question Rice about the August 6, 2001, PDB, she repeatedly argued it could not be considered a warning because it contained no specific information on where and when an attack might occur, and she declined his invitations to call for its release. But Bob Kerrey later noted that this briefing said that the FBI had gathered information on al Qaeda indicating “a pattern of activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijackings.” Nevertheless, Rice said the information in the PDB was not “actionable”–meaning it was not specific enough to warrant a direct response.

Whether that is true or not, the PDB appears to be much broader–and more frightening–than Rice had said previously (when she was talking to reporters and not under oath). She certainly made sure back in May 2002 not to mention the alarming title–which had been classified until the hearing. In fact, the classification of the PDB’s title demonstrates how an administration can abuse the classification system. In theory, the classification system is supposed to keep secret any Information that if released would harm the national security of the United States. But how could releasing the title–“Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States”–cause any injury after bin Laden had already succeeded in attacking within the United States? The reason for keeping the cloak over the title for so long is clear: the White House did not want the public to see that Bush had received a document with such information–warning or not–five weeks before 9/11. So Rice disingenuously portrayed the PDB when its existence first became known in May 2002.

[UPDATE: On April 10, two days after Rice’s appearance before the commission, the White House released the August 6 PDB. Its official title was “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” The release proved that Ben-Veniste had accurately characterized the briefing and that Rice, back in May 2002, had falsely described the PDB. The briefing did more than merely report that bin Laden had been generally interested in hijackings. One passage read, “Al-Qa’ida members – including some who are US citizens – have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks.” While not a specific warning of any particular action to come, the PDB reported a list of indicators that bin Laden was aiming to hit the United States directly. Its release raises the question, why did Bush, Rice and their administration–after a summer full of “chatter” suggesting that al Qaeda was planning something big–not devote more attention to the possibility that this event might happen in the United States and not abroad? Presumably that is the sort of query that Rice had been trying to avoid when she dishonestly claimed in 2002 that the PDB had contained merely no-big-news information.]

Now that the PDB is (partially) out of the bag, Rice and the Bush administration have to deal with the obvious follow-up question: even though most of the intelligence “chatter” in the summer of 2001 focused on a possible attack overseas, what did Bush and Rice do concerning the prospect that bin Laden might strike the United States directly? To deal with this difficult question, Rice noted that Bush did not have to take any special steps because he already knew that the FBI and the CIA were “pursuing” information about al Qaeda in the United States. She claimed that the FBI had “full field investigations under way” and that in the summer of 2001 it “tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspects of terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities.”

But Jamie Gorelick, a Democratic commissioner, challenged Rice on this point. She revealed that the commission had examined all the messages sent from FBI headquarters to its field office and had found no evidence of such a tasking. The memos that were sent out, Gorelick noted, were “feckless….They don’t tell anyone anything.” Gorelick maintained that Bush should have been the one to send a message to all the bureaucracies urging that everything be done regarding the threat from al Qaeda: “There is a greater degree of intensity when it comes from the top.” Rice replied by noting, “The president was meeting with the [CIA director]. That was well understood at the CIA.”

Rice’s opening statement, in which she attempted to answer the harsh allegations hurled at her and the White House by Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism coordinator, was rather selective. She noted she had taken the “unusual step” of retaining Clarke at the National Security Council without mentioning she had downgraded his position. She claimed that the administration had pressed Pakistan to abandon support for the Taliban without saying that, unlike the Clinton administration, it had done nothing to pressure the Saudi government to join Washington’s anti-al Qaeda efforts. She did not directly address the testimony and statements that the commission has obtained from several government officials–including Deputy CIA director John McLaughlin, counterterrorism experts at the Pentagon, and officers at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center–who each reported that the Bush administration was not taking the al Qaeda threat as seriously as necessary. When asked about Bush’s now infamous comment to Bob Woodward–“I didn’t feel that sense of urgency”–she explained that Bush had only been referring to the issue of assassinating bin Laden.

Through her testimony, Rice claimed that the policy had been moving at an adequate pace, as the administration was developing a “more strategic, more robust” plan for dealing with al Qaeda. Clarke and others argue that the plan finally adopted days before 9/11 was not all that different from the proposals Clarke had shared with the Bush administration in its first weeks. Nevertheless, Rice maintained that the speed of the deliberations, the decisions rendered, and the piecemeal actions undertaken in the meantime were, in a way, unconnected to the tragedy of September 11: “As your hearings have shown there was no silver bullet that could have stopped 9/11.”

That is a strong element of the Bush defense. But it is not the opinion of Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Last December, he said he thought that 9/11 could have been prevented: “I do not believe it had to happen.” Rice is wrong: the commission’s work and previous investigations show that the U.S. government had been in a position to track at least two of the 9/11 hijackers but failed to do so. In early 2000, the CIA learned that two al Qaeda suspects were in or heading to the United States, yet it never placed them on a State Department watchlist or notified the FBI. The two settled in San Diego and were in frequent contact with an FBI informant. Had the FBI been told by the CIA seventeen months before 9/11 to look out for these two suspected terrorists, it well could have located them through the informant or through various records (the two had rented a home and acquired driver’s licenses using their real name). There’s no telling what would have occurred had the FBI trailed these men (who were in touch with two other would-be 9/11 hijackers), or had the FBI done a better job of responding to information in its possession about suspected al Qaeda operatives taking flight instruction. But it’s a cop-out to say that more competence on the part of the CIA and the FBI–hardly a “silver bullet”–would have made no difference.

When Rice noted that the CIA’s failure to share that information with the FBI had been one of those “structural problems” that her administration could not have been expected to resolve in its first 230 days in office, Kerrey exploded: “Everyone who does national security in this town knows the FBI and the CIA don’t talk….What was your follow-up? What’s the paper trail that shows that you…followed up?”

“I followed up with Dick Clarke,” Rice replied. But Kerrey’s argument–and that of other Bush administration critics–is that if Bush himself (or the cabinet secretaries), in response to the August 6 PDB or the earlier warnings of a coming attack, had gone, more or less, ballistic, then perhaps that would have shaken up various government agencies and caused dots to be connected or suspicious information to be reevaluated. Rice rejected such a view. Instead, she said that until the Patriot Act was passed, “we couldn’t do what we needed to do” to go after suspected terrorists. Yet there had been no legal obstacles that had prevented the CIA and FBI from making effective use of the information they possessed before September 11. And Rice dismissed the suggestion of Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, that some government officials should have resigned after the failures of 9/11. The terrorists, she replied, “are the responsible party.”

Through the morning, Rice was able to interject the usual administration rhetoric into her statements. She offered Bush’s simplistic explanation for 9/11: “they attacked us for who we are, for no other reason.” That’s a rather unsophisticated view for a foreign policy scholar who could be expected to know that bin Laden and al Qaeda have strategic aims (perverse as they are) to establish a fundamentalist theocracy stretching across Arabia and see the United States (which supports governments they oppose, such as in Saudi Arabia and Israel) as an obstacle and an enemy. She also took the occasion to cheerlead for the war in Iraq, claiming that by striking Iraq the administration attacked the threat of terrorism “at its source.” How was Iraq the source of the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda? She did not say.

Rice yielded no ground. No mistakes were made. Nothing else could have been done. The war in Iraq was a wise response to 9/11 and will, once successful, “inspire hope and encourage reform throughout the greater Middle East.” For those who want to believe in the Bush administration, she did a good job. For those who don’t, she was not convincing. But if the 9/11 commission becomes seen as mainly another Washington partisan mudpit that hosts such melodrama as the Rice-Clarke face-off, the White House wins. Not because Rice was persuasive, but because the Bush administration will benefit if the work of the 9/11 commission–which has contradicted the Bush administration’s we-did-everything-possible assertions–comes to be overshadowed by business-as-usual political tit-for-tat. Rice did not have to vanquish Clarke for the White House to triumph. She only had to be articulate and poised as she obfuscated. That she accomplished.

The commission will be holding hearings April 13 and 14. Attorney General John Ashcroft, CIA director George Tenet, FBI director Robert Mueller III and others are scheduled to appear–including J. Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who last week testified in Congress that the war in Iraq has created a breeding ground for international jihadists and has caused Islamic extremist groups around the world to rally around al Qaeda and bin Laden’s agenda. The commission has a private interview pending with Bush. (The White House told the commission it wanted Vice President Dick Cheney to attend this session, and the commission agreed.) And the commission has only a few months left before it must produce its final report by a July 26 deadline. Will the panel be hobbled by declassification battles with the White House? It would be surprising if the commission avoids such tussles.

There is much to come, and it remains unclear if the commission, which does seem divided along partisan lines, is up to the job of producing an unflinching, let-the-chips-fall report. Rice’s appearance is not the end of the story. Her testimony showed that there are still many difficult questions for the panel to investigate and to resolve. *********

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