THE BIPARTISAN commission on terrorism that heard testimony yesterday from the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is trying to find out why Americans were not protected from terrorism before Sept. 11 and what can be done to correct past mistakes. Rice's testimony violated the commission's spirit of corrective inquiry because it was tainted by election-year politics. Again and again, her answers were contorted to defend the actions -- or inaction -- of her boss, President Bush.
Bush has nothing to complain about in Rice's performance. She was sharp and forceful in her efforts to shield him from any responsibility for a failure to anticipate a terrorist attack in this country and to take effective preventive measures. Her strategy was to insist that there had been no "silver bullet" in the profusion of threat warnings received by the administration -- nothing that forecast where, when, or how Al Qaeda terrorists were planning to strike the United States.
Her second line of defense was to argue that Bush inherited structural defects in the government, particularly a lack of coordination among bureaucracies such as the FBI, the CIA, the immigration service, and the Federal Aviation Administration. These defects could not be rectified in the first 233 days of a new administration, she contended.
Rice also tried to make the case that Bush took no meaningful actions against terrorism before Sept. 11 because, as he told her, he did not want merely to be "swatting flies." In Rice's more polished formulation, the reason for the administration's slowness to come up with a plan to combat Al Qaeda was that Bush wanted to go beyond the tit-for-tat tactics of the Clinton administration and develop a broader strategy to roll back and eliminate Al Qaeda.
An obvious flaw in this defense of Bush's dilatory approach to the Al Qaeda threat is that when a plan for action against Osama bin Laden's network finally made it to the White House on Sept. 4, 2001, it prescribed measures no different from those that had been pursued by the Clinton administration. Also, it projected success only after a period of three to five years.
Rice's repeated claim that Bush was seeking a comprehensive counterterrorist strategy rather than mere tactics served as an elegant smokescreen for Bush's blindness to the terrorist threat before Sept. 11. Commission member Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator from Nebraska, had it right when he said Rice's distinctions between what is tactical and what is strategic "sounds like something from a seminar." And Kerrey was right to lament that Rice did not "want to use the M-word in here" -- to admit that Bush made tragic mistakes.
Bush would have been better off letting Rice be honest about his failure to make terrorism an urgent priority. Not having that freedom, she was the epitome of competence defending his incompetence.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.