Rice's Lost Credibility
October 05, 2006
John Prados is a senior fellow with the National Security Archive in Washington. His new book is Safe For Democracy (Ivan R. Dee Publisher).
“Mushroom Cloud” Condi is at it again. In Sept. 2002, when then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice shilled for the Bush war policy by retailing the fantasy that the warning on Iraqi nuclear weapons might well be a mushroom cloud over America, her president was highly vulnerable on charges of having done nothing about terrorism warnings before 9/11, and Iraq was a suitable diversion. Fantasies evaporate, of course, and Iraq has turned into a nightmare, but the shilling goes on.
According to Rice recently, the phony mushroom cloud line was merely a generic warning about terrorists’ potential access to weapons of mass destruction. Then, in the context of last month’s ABC television movie, “The Path to 9/11,” Rice erupted again. When former president Bill Clinton told “Fox News Sunday” on Sept. 24 that he had at least tried to get Osama bin Laden and that his successors had not tried, Rice came back hard: “What we did in the eight months [that George Bush held office before the 9/11, attacks] was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did.” Now President Bush’s secretary of state, Rice declared that the notion the Bush administration “sat there” and did nothing is “flatly false.”
Is that so? There are two parts to the answer.
One concerns policy. President Bush could have adopted a broad counter-terrorism strategy and begun moving against bin Laden. Rice claims that the Clinton administration left behind no “comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida.” That, in fact, is what is flatly false. The “comprehensive” strategy document was declassified in April 2004 along with its cover memorandum, dated exactly four days after Bush became president and Rice the national security adviser (both documents have been posted on the website of the National Security Archive). Contrary to Rice’s assertion that “big pieces were missing, like an approach to Pakistan,” the section in the strategy proposal on Pakistan is three pages long. Indeed, Rice’s claims do not even meet the smell test, since every new administration always remakes the options proposed by predecessors, as Rice, a White House veteran, well knows. That is exactly what the Bush administration did.
The Deputies Committee waited three months before discussing the terrorism review, and then Pentagon officials, specifically Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, tried to turn the focus to Iraq. Scheduling problems were blamed for the delay. When the reviews were completed over the summer of 2001, scheduling intervened again—officials’ summer vacations were more important than pushing a terrorism policy up to the president. Mark that. The end result was that a policy proposal only reached the NSC Principals days before 9/11, and the finished directive landed on George Bush’s desk just 24 hours before the attacks. That same day, Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft zeroed out proposals to up the FBI’s counter-terrorism budget. The priorities were clearly not terrorism.
Another piece of the puzzle concerns warnings of terrorist attacks. Clarke told the public commission investigating the 9/11 attacks that CIA director George Tenet had his “hair on fire” trying to warn of al-Qaida action. In a memoir Richard Clarke writes that “by late June , Tenet and I were convinced that a major series of attacks was about to come.” Clarke recounts gathering the top counter-terrorism officials of an array of agencies early in July and asking them to consider themselves on alert. At a May 2002 press conference Rice confirmed that detail and added that at Bush’s request she herself met with White House chief of staff Andrew Card and Clarke the afternoon of July 5, 2001, and Clarke convened his own subordinate group the next day. She told the 9/11 Commission in April 2004 that Clarke came back to her on e-mail and sometimes in person, and that she was in touch with Tenet several times a day. The chatter was up, the alarm bells ringing.
In the new book State of Denial, journalist Bob Woodward reveals that on July 10, 2001, Tenet showed the urgency, bringing his senior counter-terrorism official to the White House to brief Rice. In his 9/11 Commission testimony (Jan. 2004) Tenet recounted that he had warned Rice of signs of a near-term al-Qaida effort at multiple simultaneous attacks against U.S. targets, facilities, or interests, intended to inflict mass casualties. According to Woodward, Tenet felt he had been brushed off at the July 10 meeting, but executed a Rice instruction to take the same information to Rumsfeld and Ashcroft. Asked for her reaction, Rice spoke of a “supposed” briefing until records put its occurrence beyond dispute. Rice said it is “incomprehensible” that she would have ignored intelligence of threatened attacks in the United States. State Department spokesmen were unable to explain why Rice ordered the briefing repeated for the other officials if it had merely been a rehash of previous intelligence.
Is it really credible that Rice would not remember events about which she testified, gave press conferences, and which resulted in Federal Aviation Administration threat advisories? Most significantly, it was in this context that officials’ summer vacations were more important than hammering out a policy directive on terrorism. Stephen Hadley, Rice’s deputy at the NSC and now her successor, was the man who chaired the Deputies Committee and failed to do the hammering. Ashcroft apparently thought the warnings solid enough to stop flying on commercial airliners, but not to increase the FBI’s counter-terrorism budget.
In all probability Rice’s view of terrorism before 9/11 was colored by her Eurocentric policy interests. Edging the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement on global warming, and nullifying the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, were more important to her than Osama bin Laden. While that reflects a certain analysis, Rice’s failure to appreciate the impending danger also demonstrates a failure of vision and imagination, one which Rumsfeld, Hadley and Ashcroft shared—not to say George Bush and Richard Cheney—and the same impaired vision that substituted short-term calculation on Iraq for any coherent policy. Meanwhile, Rice’s refusals to come clean after the fact suggest a readiness to play politics with foreign policy that is hardly desirable in a secretary of state. What is incomprehensible is that George W. Bush can believe that having Rice as America’s face to the world will inspire the globe’s confidence in this country.