National security adviser Condoleezza Rice spoke to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States . She had some interesting insights, which I’ll recap here, with my opinion added. From her opening remarks:
The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them. For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient. Historically, democratic societies have been slow to react to gathering threats, tending instead to wait to confront threats until they are too dangerous to ignore or until it is too late.
I’ve harped on it before, but freedom isn’t free. There are intangible costs associated with it, but I don’t think we wish to give up on democracy to possibly prevent more terrorism. Living in fear doesn’t work.
To her credit, Dr. Rice implied this idea. I’m not convinced that the president and administration is committed to this ideal, but I have cause for hope. However, I disagree with this next comment, concerning President Bush’s leadership since September 11th, 2001:
[H]e has done this in a way that is consistent with protecting America’s cherished civil liberties and with preserving our character as a free and open society.
I’ve written voluminously about that concept, with regard to subjects not related to September 11th, 2001. My views on this are simple: argue what you will about President Bush’s leadership in “protecting America’s cherished civil liberties and with preserving our character as a free and open society”, his actions are, at best, contradictory. At worst, this statement is false. I’m not going to comment further.
Moving on to Dr. Rice’s testimony, many of her answers portray the fact that the issues facing the president and his administration don’t lend themselves to an obvious prioritization. He must make choices, as educated as possible. It’s not always successful, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad president. Consider this:
One doesn’t have the luxury of dealing only with one issue if you are the United States of America. There are many urgent and important issues.
But we all had a strong sense that this was a very crucial issue. The question was, what do you then do about it?
And the decision that we made was to, first of all, have no drop- off in what the Clinton administration was doing, because clearly they had done a lot of work to deal with this very important priority.
And so we kept the counterterrorism team on board. We knew that George Tenet was there. We had the comfort of knowing that Louis Freeh was there.
Assuming this testimony is the truth, this begins to enlighten us about the thought process involved before September 11th. Intelligence gathering is confusing. The answers aren’t always obvious. The key is being smart with the information available at the time. The primary valuable hindsight task is to fix the intelligence/structural weaknesses that did not prevent the attacks. Assigning blame should happen, but only if an egregious failure to act makes assigning blame an obvious option.
As Dr. Rice reveals in her response to Governor James R. Thompson’s questioning about the attack on the U.S.S. Cole:
Governor Thompson: The Cole – why didn’t the Bush administration respond to the Cole?
Dr. Rice: I think Secretary Rumsfeld has perhaps said it best.
We really thought that the Cole incident was passed, that you didn’t want to respond tit-for-tat. As I’ve said, there is strategic response and tactical response.
And just responding to another attack in an insufficient way we thought would actually probably embolden the terrorists. They had been emboldened by everything else that had been done to them. And that the best course was to look ahead to a more aggressive strategy against them.
I still believe to this day that the Al Qaida were prepared for a response to the Cole and that, as some of the intelligence suggested, bin Laden was intending to show that he yet survived another one, and that it might have been counterproductive.
That makes sense to me. For an example, see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every attack gets an immediate revenge response. Where is the solution in there? I know that’s over-simplifying the issue, but the point is still relevant. The thought process within the Clinton and Bush administrations was logical and potentially correct.
However, despite my positive response to Dr. Rice’s testimony, my fundamental issue with the Bush administration is displayed by Bob Kerrey’s comments during the questioning:
Let me say, I think you would have come in there if you said, We screwed up. We made a lot of mistakes. You obviously don’t want to use the M-word in here. And I would say fine, it’s game, set, match. I understand that.
When faced with questioning about what happened, President Bush and the administration circled the wagons. They didn’t want any debate. The president has a war on terrorism to fight, which isn’t finished. But that’s a justification for beginning the debate, not ending it. He’s committed America to a long fight against radical, violent thinking. This is worthy, but not to be undertaken in secret.
Everyone knows that mistakes were made leading up to September 11th. I believe (hope?) the majority of people are smart enough to know that no one person or administration can be blamed for this. We didn’t know. But we could’ve. Until President Bush is prepared to act presidential and speaks honestly with the American people, his credibility will suffer. In an election year, that’s not wise.