In her much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice delivered a powerful rebuttal Thursday to critics who say President Bush brushed off warnings of a major terrorist attack inside the United States -- warnings that poured into American intelligence agencies like a torrent in the summer of 2001.
But on the critical question of what the Bush White House did in response to those warnings, Rice’s performance was markedly less effective. Repeatedly, she described a White House inner circle that spent its time on broad strategy and left it up to the bureaucracy to decide how to meet the escalating threat, with no real follow-up from the White House.
At one point, asked about a memo written to her by White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke warning that the parochial interests of the agencies would thwart action unless the White House kept the pressure on, Rice said she thought Clarke was just trying to “buck me up.”
“The problem for Dr. Rice in her testimony,” as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, put it, “is that the concept of bureaucracy she offers is essentially a passive, not an active concept.”
The question is, Jamieson said: “Would it have made a difference if they had a different concept?”
Rice faced more than three hours of questioning that oscillated between hardball and softball, and at times even descended to T-ball as friendly members of the panel served up queries designed to help her score rhetorical home runs.
And Rice gave no ground on the White House line: The president did everything he could, but “structural” defects in the nation’s intelligence and security systems made it impossible to detect and avert the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But the portrait of Bush and his closest aides that emerged from her testimony, while acquitting them of ignoring the warnings, left an image of leaders detached from the practical challenges of mounting a defense.
In a sense, it came down to two concepts of how a president should operate: the Bush team’s view that the chief executive should delegate authority, and the view espoused by Clarke and others that the White House should actively work to ensure that effective action is taken -- including “shaking the trees” to move sometimes-hidebound government agencies.
Grace Under Pressure
Supporters and critics alike gave Rice high marks for her grace under questioning, and most said her performance was likely to improve the administration’s image on the sensitive issues concerning the 9/11 attacks.
“She did a good job. She wasn’t confrontational,” said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University.
At the same time, Rice’s answers depicted an administration less in command of the government than her composure and relaxed demeanor in the witness chair may have implied.
For example, to demonstrate that she and the president fully understood the spiking threat level in the summer of 2001, Rice read the commission fragments of what she called “the chatter” from Al Qaeda sources being picked up by intelligence agencies: “Unbelievable news in coming weeks.... Big event.... There will be a very, very, very, very big uproar.... There will be attacks in the near future.”
Repeatedly, however, Rice told the commission that warnings and memos that reached her desk -- including a critical Aug. 6 CIA report on Al Qaeda plans to attack the United States -- were too vague to permit concrete action.
Though the still-classified memo was entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,” Rice said, “This was not a threat report to the president or a threat report to me. If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something or that [Chief of Staff] Andy Card needed to do something, I would have been expected to be asked to do it. We were not asked to do it,” Rice said.
At least some of the 10 commissioners saw the issue a different way: Not did the administration do what it was asked, but did it ask what it should do?
“But don’t you ask somebody to do it?” countered commissioner Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “You’re not asking somebody to do it. Why wouldn’t you initiate that?”
Bush has always said that his management style is to delegate responsibility, and to trust his aides to report to him what he needs to know.
But Texas A&M;'s Edwards said that puts an extra responsibility on the president to create an atmosphere in which aides can raise unpleasant issues, not just once, but many times.
That’s what Clarke, in his testimony before the commission two weeks ago, said he tried to do. He said he repeatedly asked to raise the issue of a looming domestic attack at higher levels and was rebuffed.
“I can’t criticize orderliness,” Edwards said. “The question is -- is it orderliness at the expense of free communication?”
Throughout her testimony, Rice returned to what she called “structural” problems -- especially constrained communication between the FBI and CIA -- that she said kept government officials from “connecting the dots” and sending more specific threat warnings to her and Bush.
Jamieson said that’s a line of argument that does not lay to rest the central question: Could more have been done?
“When she answers by talking about structure, it’s a deflection of the question,” Jamieson said. “It can be true that there is a structural problem, but that doesn’t eliminate the question of whether people within the structure could have done something more.”
John W. Dean III, himself a veteran of Washington scandal who has written a new book on the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy, said he was also struck by the passivity at the heart of Rice’s arguments.
“If Richard Nixon had been given that info, I can assure you he wouldn’t have taken months to act on it,” said Dean, who served as Nixon’s counsel and -- once the Watergate scandal broke -- became a central figure in the unraveling of the Nixon presidency. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“She pointed to systemic, structural problems that anybody who has ever worked in Washington knows about,” said Dean.
In effect, Rice found herself in a rhetorical snare.
Arguing that the president fully grasped the threat of terrorist attacks -- her answer to the first fundamental question she had to address in her appearance -- only made it harder for her to explain convincingly why he, or she, had not done more to try to stop the attacks, which was the second question she had come to address.
“If the message got through, and he didn’t act, then it is clearly his responsibility,” Edwards said.
For many, responsibility is the crux of the issue.
Rice’s argument that “systemic” problems were to blame for not preventing the attacks puts the debate in a long-term context that effectively shifts responsibility more to the Clinton administration, which was in power for eight years before them, compared to the Bush administration’s eight months.
Rice also used the “silver bullet” argument -- that there was no one policy the Bush administration could have adopted that would have stopped the attacks.
In the closest she came to admitting an error or accepting responsibility, Rice said, “For more than 20 years the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient.”
Some critics said that all those arguments were effectively just an attempt to evade responsibility.
Moreover, Jamieson said, Rice’s continued resistance to releasing classified documents that bear on the issue -- along with the long White House effort to keep her from testifying -- was a reminder of the ways the administration has not cooperated with the commission.
The result, said Jamieson, is that despite putting Rice on the front line, some who watched may still think the Bush administration has something to hide.
“This is a problem that goes beyond Condoleezza Rice,” Jamieson said. “The accumulation of that impression is not good for the Bush administration.”