Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 21 Nissan, 5764
Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
Condoleezza Rice's appearance before the 9/11 Commission was more about
political theater than fact-finding.
Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean pretty much gave the game away when,
prior to Rice agreeing to testify, he said that he merely wanted Rice to
reiterate in public what she had told the commission in private.
In other words, his goal for the hearing was to learn nothing new.
Any doubts that the real game was political theater were dissipated by the
badgering, argumentative questions of Democratic Commissioners Richard
Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey.
Consider this revealing exchange:
BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th (Presidential
Daily Briefing) warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask
you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the
United States." Now, the …
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste …
BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the …
RICE: I would like to finish my point here.
BEN-VENISTE: I didn't know there was a point.
RICE: Given that - you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.
BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.
So, Ben-Veniste asks a question, did the report warn of attacks? He then
denies having asked the question when Rice attempts to answer it. And he's
plainly uninterested in her answer.
Perhaps that's because Ben-Veniste didn't actually need to learn what the
report said from Rice. He had access to the actual document. His "question"
was pure posturing, not fact-finding.
While this commission will clearly continue to wallow in the blame game,
Rice's testimony, properly considered, should clear the field for a
discussion of the real terrorism issues.
At this point, it's clear that the Bush administration continued all of the
Clinton administration's efforts against al-Qaida and was considering new
initiatives. And it did all the things previously done in response to the
threat spike in spring and summer of 2001: issue warnings, strengthen
defenses, intensify disruptive counter-terrorism activities.
It was always likely that, after 9/11, things that might have prevented it
would become known. And indeed that is the case. Visas were processed that
were incomplete. Two known al-Qaida operatives in the country weren't
apprehended or tracked. There wasn't an aggressive enough investigation of
another al-Qaida operative who was apprehended prior to the attack.
This lack of vigilance was in part a result of long-standing institutional
cultures, practices and law. The notion that in its first eight months, the
Bush administration should have changed the culture of the State
Department's easy-going visa review process, the FBI's emphasis on solving
crimes rather than combating terrorism, and the legal barriers to sharing
investigative products is a bit far-fetched.
So, all that's really left is a controversy about who was meeting how
frequency with whom about what. The Bush administration, in contrast to the
Clinton administration, is a button-down, hierarchical structure in which
people are expected to do their jobs.
The allegation is being made that if more senior officials had been meeting
more frequently in response to the threat spike, perhaps somehow something
would have been shaken loose and 9/11 prevented. That's a highly
speculative and dubious proposition.
All of this is a diversion from the truly important questions: Did the Bush
administration learn the right lessons from 9/11? Are we now going about
protecting the United States from terrorist attacks in the right way?
Paradoxically, the United States is probably doing both too little and too
much about terrorism.
Domestically, despite the establishment of the Homeland Security
department, the critical functions involved in detecting and disrupting
terrorist activities are still scattered throughout the government. The
federal government is still not organized to maximize the ability to
prevent a domestic terrorist attack.
Internationally, the Bush administration is correct that the United States
is made more secure by the spread of democracy and market economies. But
making the United States a blunt instrument of transformation, particularly
in the Muslim and Arab world, may increase rather than reduce the risk of
These are the real issues, as opposed to the 9/11 Commission's political
theater, that should engage the country.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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