April 09, 2004

Condeleeza Rice Testimony Before the 9/11 Commission

As I mentioned yesterday, Condeleeza Rice hit at least a clean triple yesterday in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission.

This is true both in terms of her style--her poised, controlled delivery--as well as the substance of her remarks.

The Tactics and Style

First, let's look at her style and tactical performance.

For one, she avoided the mawkish, Richard Clarke apologia to the 9/11 families.

Instead, with more discretion and not under the klieg lights of her live testimony, she commiserated with the 9/11 families after concluding her remarks and answers to the Commissioner's interrogatories.

Put simply, a class act--particularly given that she didn't take any jabs at Clarke.

9/11 families still have many questions and concerns, to be sure, but they appeared grateful and appreciative of the time Condi Rice spent with them.

She, not suprisingly, remained her hyper-poised, professional self throughout her testimony.

But, if only rarely, she was willing to let down the veneer of Beltway toughness and speak from the heart.

Discussing how, historically, it is so difficult to build a democracy Rice said:

"When our Founding Fathers said We the people, they didn't mean me. Its taken us a while to get to a multiethnic democracy that works. But if America is avowedly values-centered in its foreign policy, we do better than when we do not stand up for those values. So I think that it's going to be very hard. It's going to take time. We - one of the things that we've been very interested, for instance, in is issues of educational reform in some of these countries. As you know, the madrassas are a big difficulty. I've met, myself personally, two or three times with the Pakistani - a wonderful woman who's the Pakistani education minister. We can't do it for them. They have to do it for themselves. But we have to stand for those values. And over the long run, we will change - I believe we will change the nature of the Middle East, particularly if there are examples that this can work in the Middle East.

And this is why Iraq is so important. The Iraqi people are struggling to find a way to create a multiethnic democracy that works. And it's going to be hard. And if we stay with them and when they succeed, I think we will have made a big change. They will have made a big change in the middle of the Arab world and we will be on our way to addressing the source."

Indeed.

And while Condi might, back a couple centuries, have been counted as 3/5th of a Bob Kerry or Ben-Veniste--today she blew both of them out of the water.

Tactically, she was superb.

Look how she handles Richard Ben-Veniste's bullying prosecutorial performance (pity we have so few lawyer statesmen left, say like a Cy Vance, who can rise above such crude and naked Veniste-like partisanship):

BEN-VENISTE. Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the Aug. 6 P.D.B. warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that P.D.B.

RICE. I believe the title was Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States. Now, the P.D.B. -

BEN-VENISTE. Thank you.

RICE. No, Mr. Ben-Veniste -

BEN-VENISTE. I will get into the -

RICE. I would like to finish my point here.

BEN-VENISTE. I didn't know there was a point.

RICE. Given that - you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.

BEN-VENISTE. I asked you what the title was.

RICE. You said did it not warn of attacks. It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.

Note Ben-Veniste's sleazy performance.

He asked Rice about the title of the PDB and whether it warned of possible attacks.

But Ben-Veniste, of course, was only interested in a theatrical showcasing of the title of the P.D.B. (and who cares, finally, what it was called?)

Instead, of course, the key question was whether it included any new information regading going forward attacks.

Ben-Veniste, a tad sloppily, raised that question too initially (he probably didn't mean to--but it likely came out in an unguarded moment of uncontrolled spontaneity as even he realizes, of course, that that's the question that matters).

But, realizing his error, he tried to limit (and thus acted highly disingenuously) Condi's answer to solely the title of the P.S.D.--intimating that had been his sole query and attempting to bully Rice by saying "I didn't know there was a point."

Condi didn't get bullied. She held her ground against a seasoned prosecutor.

And by so doing, she showcased the theatrical, hyperbolic and, ultimately, empty portent of Ben-Veniste's line of questioning.

What mattered, of course, was that the PDB of August 6th was not the 'silver bullet' that would have prevented 9/11.

And Rice made that pretty darn clear.

Did Rice's Testimony Insulate Bush Re: the 9/11 Canard Going Forward?

Sure, as a pretty fair WaPo piece points out, there will be some "residual fodder" to kick around.

Democrats will continue to ask that the August 6th PDB be released and such.

The White House will probably do so. And so the lack of any 'silver bullet' will be evidenced further.

But we're pretty much already there. There's simply not much ammo (silver bullet or otherwise) for the Democrats here.

They're going to have to move on soon--and, frankly, they should have never entertained pinning the Bush team with responsibility for 9/11.

For one thing, it's grotesque to turn this massive national tragedy into a political pinata.

And, for another, if you're going to get dragged into the politics of it, most Americans smell out the basic fact that Clinton had eight years to handle the al-Qaeda threat and Bush but eight months.

And no concrete, actionable intelligence, Rice's testimony made clear, arose during Bush's short pre 9/11 stewardship that would have provided the Bush team a chance to prevent the attacks (see below how "structural" deficiencies regarding the (lack of) coordination between the F.B.I. and C.I.A. were the only thing that might have materially impacted, just perhaps, preventing the 9/11 attacks).

Press Treatment

The New York Times, unsuprisingly, gets tabloid-like (as compared to the Washington Post, for instance) in its coverage of Rice's testimony. Consider this piece:

"In her long-awaited sworn testimony before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Rice acknowledged that the special intelligence briefing that had been requested by Mr. Bush and presented to him on Aug. 6, 2001, at his Texas ranch had carried an ominous title: "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

"Acknowledge." "Ominous." A casual NYT reader would be forgiven for thinking that the Bush team dropped the ball--big time.

But a judicious examination of Rice's testimony, as explained above, makes it clear that simply wasn't the case.

Then there's the Times' masthead:

"The administration argument that it had only gotten intelligence about potential terrorist attacks abroad in the summer of 2001 was rather drastically undermined when Ms. Rice revealed, under questioning, that the briefing given Mr. Bush by the C.I.A. on Aug. 6, 2001, was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Ms. Rice continues to insist that the information was "historical" rather than a warning of something likely to occur."

What utter nonsense. Nothing was "drastically undermined."

W. 43rd Street is simply playing ball with Richard Ben-Veniste's theatrical, incendiary tactics.

I'm shocked, shocked (though, given that the NYT is NYC's main paper, and given the immense pain caused the Big Apple by 9/11--you might have hoped for more responsible treatment of the story--rather than hyped up partisan cheap shots).

Meanwhile the Times cheerleads Clinton's testimony yesterday--and provides some helpful space to now paid ABC consultant Richard Clarke.

The Times chooses this quote to end their piece on Clinton's testimony:

"He was exceedingly generous with his time, very candid in his discussions of even the most delicate kinds of relationships for example, the relationship with several foreign countries and specifically several foreign leaders," Mr. Hamilton said.

"He had a lot of very constructive suggestions to us as to how to put the report together and what kinds of recommendations to make," he continued, speaking on "Newshour."

It's a bona fide love in, isn't it?

Final Points

On a substantive level, and I write in haste, as even the Times concedes:

"Ms. Rice's strongest moments came when she made the case that a month and a half after settling into her office, she started developing a comprehensive--if long-range--strategy to upend Al Qaeda. She argued that the man who has been her harshest critic, Richard A. Clarke, had not left her with a plan, but rather a series of steps to lash out at Al Qaeda. She said that "we might have gone off-course" if the administration had pursued the group without trying to line up Pakistan and other key players."

And all but the most bitter partisans will give the Adminstration a pass on the "structural" problems related to the interfacing between the CIA and the FBI--a problem that plagued the Clinton team too.

This is the only issue that may have had a material impact on, just perhaps, preventing 9/11--that wasn't acted on by the Bush team.

Here's Condi's take:

HAMILTON. Well I thank you for a careful answer. Another question: At the end of the day, of course, we were unable to protect our people. And you suggest in your statement, and I want you to elaborate on this if you want to, that in hindsight it would have been - better information about the threats would have been the single most important thing for us to have done, from your point of view, prior to 9/11 would have been better intelligence, better information about the threats. Is that right? Are there other things that you think stand out?

RICE. Well, Mr. Chairman, I took an oath of office on the day that I took this job, to protect and defend. And like most government officials, it take it very seriously. And so as you might imagine, I've asked myself a thousand times what more we could have done. I know that, had we thought that there was an attack coming in Washington or New York we would have moved heaven and earth to try and stop it. And I know that there was no single thing that might have prevented that attack.

I - in looking back, I believe that the absence of light, so to speak, on what was going on inside the country - the inability to connect the dots - was really structural. We couldn't be dependent on chance that something might come together. And the legal impediments and the bureaucratic impediments. But I want to emphasize the legal impediments. To keep the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. from functioning really as one so that there was no seam between domestic and foreign intelligence was probably the greatest one. The director of central intelligence and I think Director Freeh had an excellent relationship. They were trying hard to bridge that seam. I know that Louis Freeh had developed legal attaches abroad to try to help bridge that. But when it came right down to it, this country, for reasons of history and culture and therefore law, had an allergy to the notion of domestic intelligence. And we were organized on that basis. And it just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together. We've made good changes since then.

I think that having a homeland security department that can bring together the F.A.A. and the I.N.S. and Customs and all of the various agencies is a very important step. I think that the creation of the Terrorism Threat Information Center, which brings together all of the intelligence from various aspects is a very important step forward. Clearly, the Patriot Act, which has allowed the kind of sharing, indeed demands the kind of sharing between intelligence agencies, including the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., is a very big step forward. I think one thing that we will learn from you is whether the structural work is done.

Of course, a lot on the Left still have an "allergy to the notion of domestic intelligence"--but let's leave that aside for the moment. The point here is that, with 20-20 hindsight, it would have been wonderful if the FBI and CIA were coordinating closely. Alas, they weren't. But no one can fairly blame Bush for this, no?

Finally, I think this WaPo piece gauges the impact and caliber of Condi's testimony best:

"If it were to be viewed as a battle, or a sporting event, or a contest -- and of course that would be wrong -- then Condoleezza Rice won it. Indeed, the national security adviser did so well and seemed so firmly in command of the situation yesterday, when she testified under oath before the 9/11 commission, that one had to wonder why the White House spent so much time and energy trying to keep her from having to appear."

Indeed.

Posted by Gregory at April 9, 2004 09:40 AM
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