Campaigns have turning points, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s coming testimony to the 9-11 Commission might be one. If it is, it can only be for the worse. If it is not, it will remove from center stage the controversy begun in the carefully planned and stage-managed testimony of former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke. Dr. Rice, a Southern gentlelady, will need to perform out of character, more with the power of fact and rhetoric than grace. She is the President’s principal surrogate spokesman on the policy of countering terrorism, and she needs to do more than just defend. She must attack.
Senior government officials are always advised to “take the high road” by their staffs. Been there, done that. It don’t work. The bureaucrats hate to see anyone come out swinging, even if it’s the bottom of the ninth with two out and you’re a run behind. The Bush administration isn’t in that bad a shape, but it will be unless Rice takes a full swing and drives it over the bleacher seats. Forget the “high road,” Dr. Rice. Bring all your weapons, and don’t come back with unexpended ordnance.
Rice can’t waste time faulting Clarke. Yes, he’s a self-promoter who puts P.T. Barnum to shame. Yes, he’s trying to distract us from his own failures and make apologies for Clinton while tearing Bush down. Yes, whatever. Almost no one outside conservative circles has paid a lot of attention to the barrage of criticism aimed at Clarke. He’ll remain the darling of the international media and the French Party. We are still seven months before the election in what is going to be the most extreme and foul presidential campaign since Lincoln ran against McClellan. Rice’s testimony has to both revalidate the President’s policy and take the momentum given Kerry by Clarke.
CLARKE’S TESTIMONY WILL BE played — over and over despite his phony objections — in dozens of campaign ads to come. Rice needs to deal with a controversy that has been created by the president’s own words. Remember what Bob Woodward quotes the president as saying? In his book, Bush’s War, Woodward said Mr. Bush told him that before 9-11, “I didn’t feel a sense of urgency about al-Qaeda. It was not my focus; it was not the focus of my team.” That’s one of Clarke’s two central points, and it has to be met head on.
It is a fact that the Clinton administration did not pass on a master plan against terrorism to the incoming Bush administration. Its staff was too busy tearing the “W” keys out of White House keyboards. It is also a fact that the Clintons refused to do the one thing that would have substantially hurt al-Qaeda: put spec ops troops on the ground in Afghanistan to capture or kill the Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, it is a fact that all the intelligence that could have pointed to the coming 9-11 attacks was buried by the intelligence system Congress designed and the Clintons did nothing to improve.
Clarke admitted — on Meet the Press last month — that the two key pieces of intelligence data which might have led to urgency in dealing with al-Qaeda were lost in the bureaucracy. One was the CIA’s knowledge that possible terrorists were being trained to pilot airliners at American schools. George Tenet was breakfasting with David Boren, former Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, at the moment of the 9-11 attacks. When he got the news, Tenet reportedly remarked to Boren his wonder about whether those pilot trainees were involved. Neither Clarke nor anyone else at the White House was aware of the men being trained to fly airliners.
THE SECOND FACT OF which the White House was ignorant was the FBI’s knowledge that two suspects in the al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole were in the United States. These two were among the 9-11 hijackers. Intelligence fusion — making all the CIA’s and FBI’s knowledge available to the White House as well as the NSA and DIA — wasn’t being done. It’s possible that if the Bush White House were more adamant about it, as they became quickly after 9-11, this knowledge could have subverted the 9-11 plan. Rice will be asked that question, and has to answer it with a “yes, but.” The “but” has to be that we will never know. Clarke’s point is pure speculation. What Rice needs to do is make it clear that — as Clarke said in response to a question from former Sen. Slade Gorton — even if those facts were known, and even if his recommendations were followed, 9-11 would almost certainly still have happened. Mr. Bush didn’t drop the ball. The system never tossed it to him.
Clarke made the point that the White House had every federal agency on the highest alert status for six weeks in the summer of 2001. When the intelligence information justified it, the Bush administration responded. When that alert ended, it was because the intel no longer justified it. In the months before 9-11 — as the intel data apparently justified — the alert was relaxed. That doesn’t sound like the Bush people weren’t giving the al-Qaeda threat the urgent attention it deserved.
Clarke’s second point — that the Iraq war weakened the war against al-Qaeda — is completely false. Rice needs to get the word from Gen. Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs, and quote him directly to the effect that the assets Clarke pointed to — Predator drones, intelligence assets, and special ops forces — were not reduced below what the military commanders deemed essential to the Afghanistan campaign in favor of Iraq. If she can’t say that truthfully, the Iraq war will be de-legitimized. The point needs to be made with as much force, and as often, as Dr. Rice can make it. The fact that we have caught or killed at least 70% of the known al-Qaeda leadership should be set out in detail.
IF RICE DOESN’T CLEAR the bases with her testimony, the fallout could be devastating. Not only will the media keep Clarke’s criticisms on the air every day, the 9-11 Commission’s report, due out in July, will inevitably be a split decision. The Democrats on the panel will do everything they can to make Clarke’s criticisms a central point in their findings. Any delay in releasing the report will be blamed on Mr. Bush, and be used to prove Kerry’s inevitable point that Mr. Bush didn’t do all he should to prevent the attack. Once the report is out, it will become a central issue in the campaign. If — as it appears increasingly likely — America is struck again this summer, Mr. Bush will be blamed for ignoring the terrorist threat, and the charge will stick regardless of the events of the near-past.
This election is still one for Mr. Bush to lose, not for Kerry to win. The President is a strong leader of a nation at war, but his position is not that of FDR in 1942. America was united in the war against Japan to a degree it hasn’t been since. The 1942 Republicans had no beef about that war. But the French Party of today will run on its quasi-peace platform that will use every code word it can muster to promise no more 9-11s without actually saying it. Mr. Bush has to campaign on what Rice will say on Thursday. The world is safer — but not safe — because of what Mr. Bush has done since 9-11. It is essential that America be united around that idea, and Dr. Rice has to give it reason to be so.
Dr. Rice cannot do more than reduce the ability of the 9-11 Commission Dems to blame the President for neglecting terrorism. Mr. Bush will have to do the rest. So far, all he’s said is that if he’d known 9-11 were coming, he would have moved heaven and earth to stop it. But that’s not nearly enough.
IT’S HARDER AND HARDER to understand why the President hasn’t been much more aggressive on the legislative front. The most likely reason is that his advisers – George Tenet, John Ashcroft, and others — are still playing turf games over the intelligence apparatus. Mr. Bush can’t wait until the 9-11 Commission makes its recommendations to demand Congress do what needs to be done to fix the intelligence community and protect America from future attacks. His legislative program is so low profile it’s literally invisible. One way to make sure Rice’s testimony has the necessary effect is to use it to announce several aggressive legislative initiatives to fix these problems.
Rice will not have the last word with the 9-11 Commission. President Bush and Vice President Cheney will testify together, and Bill Clinton and Al Gore will appear separately. The latter two will, as always, make every effort to rewrite history on the air and the front page. It’s time again for Mr. Bush to take the offensive. April 8 is the day to start.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Asylum: How the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think.