[ OUR OPINION ]
Rice absolution of
White House too absolute
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified that the Bush administration had done all it could to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
CONDOLEEZZA Rice gave a dignified and strong defense of the Bush administration in her testimony before the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America -- a bit too strong. Beyond stating her belief that the attacks probably could not have been prevented, the president's national security adviser asserted that her administration had been on high alert and done everything possible to thwart such an assault. In reality, the Bush White House shares responsibility with previous administrations for failing to fully identify and respond to the terrorist threat as it grew.
"President Bush understood the threat, and he understood the importance," Rice insisted to the commission. However, Bush has acknowledged that he "was not on point" regarding the threat of Osama bin Laden before the attack and "didn't feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling."
Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Clinton and Bush, told the commission last month that the Bush administration "saw terrorism policy as important, not urgent," as Clinton had viewed it. Richard Armitage, Bush's deputy secretary of state, acknowledged to the commission that "we weren't going fast enough" in preparing to prevent a terrorist attack.
"The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them," Rice said, explaining that the threat had grown through several administrations. "And tragically," she said at another point, "for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing."
It should have been, and Clarke clearly tried to alert Rice to that need. Clarke said he outlined to her his plan for fighting terrorism during Bush's first month as president and asked that he brief cabinet members. The briefing was delayed to Sept. 4, nearly a month after Bush was handed a memo written by Clarke and titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Rice regarded the memo as "historical" and not a warning of an impending threat.
Clarke has said the administration would have learned about two of the hijackers who had been in the United States if it had shaken the trees of the FBI and Justice Department. Rice said, "I just don't buy the argument that we weren't shaking the trees enough." She said the FBI at the time was conducting "70 full-field investigations" of al-Qaida cells on U.S. soil. Counterterrorism officials told The New York Times after her testimony that the number overstated the intensity of their search.
Rice and Clarke agreed on most factual matters. However, Clarke said he had asked her for permission "several times" to brief the president about the terrorist threat, while Rice said he had never asked for such a presidential briefing.
The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, and vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said a week ago that the evidence gathered by the panel showed the attacks probably could have been prevented. Rice's absolute denial of any failing by the Bush administration should not alter that conclusion.