Condi Rice doesn't understand her own job.

Military analysis.
April 8 2004 6:17 PM

Condi Lousy

Why Rice is a bad national security adviser.

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Former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer posed the question directly: Wasn't it your responsibility to make sure that the word went down the chain, that orders were followed up by action?

Just as the Bush administration has declined to admit any mistakes, Condi Rice declined to take any responsibility. No, she answered, the FBI had that responsibility. Crisis management? That was Dick Clarke's job. "[If] I needed to do anything," she said, "I would have been asked to do it. I was not asked to do it."

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Jamie Gorelick, a former assistant attorney general (and thus someone who knows the ways of the FBI), drove the point home. The commission's staff has learned, she told Rice, that the high-level intelligence warnings were not sent down the chain of command. The secretary of transportation had no idea about the threat-chatter nor did anyone at the Federal Aviation Administration. FBI field offices and special agents also heard nothing about it. Yes, FBI headquarters sent out a few messages, but have you seen them? Gorelick asked. "They are feckless," she went on. "They don't tell anybody anything. They don't put anybody at battle stations."

Bob Kerrey was blunter still. "One of the first things I learned when I came into this town," he said, "was that CIA and FBI don't talk to each other." It has long been reported that regional agents deep inside the FBI wrote reports about strange Arabs taking flight lessons and that analysts inside the CIA were reporting that Arab terrorists might be inside the United States. If both pieces of information were forced up to the tops of their respective bureaucracies, couldn't someone have put them together? "All it had to do was be put on intel links and the game's over," Kerrey said, perhaps a bit dramatically, the conspiracy "would have been rolled up."

This was one of Clarke's most compelling points. In his book, testimony, and several TV interviews, Clarke has argued that the Clinton administration thwarted al-Qaida's plot to set off bombs at Los Angeles airport on the eve of the millennium because intelligence reports of an impending terrorist attack were discussed at several meetings of Cabinet secretaries. Knowing they'd have to come back and tell the president what they were doing to prevent an attack, these officials went back to their departments and "shook the trees" for information. When Bush came to power, Rice retained Clarke and his counterterrorism crew, but she demoted their standing; terrorism was now discussed (and, even then, rarely) at meetings of deputy secretaries, who lacked the same clout and didn't feel the same pressure.

Rice's central point this morning, especially in her opening statement, was that nobody could have stopped the 9/11 attacks. The problem, she argued, was cultural (a democratic aversion to domestic intelligence gathering) and structural (the bureaucratic schisms between the FBI and the CIA, among others). But this is the analysis of a political scientist, not a policymaker. Culture and bureaucracies form the backdrop against which officials perceive threats, devise options, and make choices. It is good that Rice, a political scientist by training, recognized that this backdrop can place blinders and constraints on decision-makers. But her job as a high-ranking decision-maker is to strip away the blinders and maneuver around the constraints. This is especially so given that she is the one decision-maker who is supposed to coordinate the views of the various agencies and present them as a coherent picture to the president of the United States. Her testimony today provides disturbing evidence that she failed at this task—failed even to understand that it was part of her job description.

Correction, April 15, 2004:This piece originally referred to the Aug. 6 PDB by the incorrect title offered by Condoleezza Rice in her testimony before the commission. (Return to the corrected sentence.)