Why Rice is a bad national security adviser.
One clear inference can be drawn from Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission this morning: She has been a bad national security adviser—passive, sluggish, and either unable or unwilling to tie the loose strands of the bureaucracy into a sensible vision or policy. In short, she has not done what national security advisers are supposed to do.
The key moment came an hour into the hearing, when former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste took his turn at asking questions. Up to this point, Rice had argued that the Bush administration could not have done much to stop the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yes, the CIA's sirens were sounding all summer of an impending strike by al-Qaida, but the warnings were of an attack overseas.
Ben-Veniste brought up the much-discussed PDB—the president's daily briefing by CIA Director George Tenet—of Aug. 6, 2001. For the first time, he revealed the title of that briefing: "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US."*
Rice insisted this title meant nothing. The document consisted of merely "historical information" about al-Qaida—various plans and attacks of the past. "This was not a 'threat report,' " she said. It "did not warn of any coming attack inside the United States." Later in the hearing, she restated the point: "The PDB does not say the United States is going to be attacked. It says Bin Laden would like to attack the United States."
To call this distinction "academic" would be an insult to academia.
Rice acknowledged that throughout the summer of 2001 the CIA was intercepting unusually high volumes of "chatter" about an impending terrorist strike. She quoted from some of this chatter: "attack in near future," "unbelievable news coming in weeks," "a very, very, very big uproar." She said some "specific" intelligence indicated the attack would take place overseas. However, she noted that very little of this intelligence was specific; most of it was "frustratingly vague." In other words (though she doesn't say so), most of the chatter might have been about a foreign or a domestic attack—it wasn't clear.
Given that Richard Clarke, the president's counterterrorism chief, was telling her over and over that a domestic attack was likely, she should not have dismissed its possibility. Now that we know the title of the Aug. 6 PDB, we can go further and conclude that she should have taken this possibility very, very seriously. Putting together the facts may not have been as simple as adding 2 + 2, but it couldn't have been more complicated than 2 + 2 + 2.
The Aug. 6 briefing itself remains classified. Ben-Veniste urged Rice to get it declassified, saying the full document would reveal that even the premise of her analysis is flawed. The report apparently mentions not historical but "ongoing" FBI precautions. Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey added that the PDB also reports that the FBI was detecting a "pattern of activity, inside the United States, consistent with hijacking."
Responding to Ben-Veniste, Rice acknowledged that Clarke had told her that al-Qaida had "sleeper cells" inside the Untied States. But, she added, "There was no recommendation that we do anything" about them. She gave the same answer when former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican and outspoken Bush defender restated the question about sleeper cells. There was, Rice said, "no recommendation of what to do about it." She added that she saw "no indication that the FBI was not adequately pursuing" these cells.
Here Rice revealed, if unwittingly, the roots—or at least some roots—of failure. Why did she need a recommendation to do something? Couldn't she make recommendations herself? Wasn't that her job? Given the huge spike of traffic about a possible attack (several officials have used the phrase "hair on fire" to describe the demeanor of those issuing the warnings), should she have been satisfied with the lack of any sign that the FBI wasn't tracking down the cells? Shouldn't she have asked for positive evidence that it was tracking them down?
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Condoleezza Rice by Larry Downing/Reuters.