Was Condi Lousy?

Fred Kaplan thinks that Condoleeza Rice just proved herself incompetent to hold her current job.

Much as I regret that the Condi Rice Show should be distracting attention from the problem of what the hell to do right now in Iraq, I’ve been waiting for the reviews to come in. If, like me, you’re hoping for a change of personnel come January, you had to worry that Rice would manage to bamboozle the viewers.

I didn’t watch, but the reviews seem to be coming in rather negative. (Or judge for yourself: here’s the transcript.) The right has been mostly criticizing the Commissioners, apparently to avoid having to comment on Rice’s performance. And Slate, which generally leans left but doesn’t make a fetish of it, has two absolutey devastating pieces, one by Fred Kaplan, one by William Saletan.

Kaplan’s lead gives you the flavor of his piece:

One clear inference can be drawn from Condoleezza Rice’s testimony before the 9/11 commission this morning: She has been a bad national security adviser—passive, sluggish, and either unable or unwilling to tie the loose strands of the bureaucracy into a sensible vision or policy. In short, she has not done what national security advisers are supposed to do.

Kaplan then moves in for the kill:

The key moment came an hour into the hearing, when former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste took his turn at asking questions. Up to this point, Rice had argued that the Bush administration could not have done much to stop the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yes, the CIA’s sirens were sounding all summer of an impending strike by al-Qaida, but the warnings were of an attack overseas.

Ben-Veniste brought up the much-discussed PDB—the president’s daily briefing by CIA Director George Tenet—of Aug. 6, 2001. For the first time, he revealed the title of that briefing: “Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States.”

Rice insisted this title meant nothing. The document consisted of merely “historical information” about al-Qaida—various plans and attacks of the past. “This was not a ‘threat report,’ ” she said. It “did not warn of any coming attack inside the United States.” Later in the hearing, she restated the point: “The PDB does not say the United States is going to be attacked. It says Bin Laden would like to attack the United States.”

To call this distinction “academic” would be an insult to academia.

Wait, there’s more:

Responding to Ben-Veniste, Rice acknowledged that Clarke had told her that al-Qaida had “sleeper cells” inside the Untied States. But, she added, “There was no recommendation that we do anything” about them. She gave the same answer when former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican and outspoken Bush defender restated the question about sleeper cells. There was, Rice said, “no recommendation of what to do about it.” She added that she saw “no indication that the FBI was not adequately pursuing” these cells.

Here Rice revealed, if unwittingly, the roots—or at least some roots—of failure. Why did she need a recommendation to do something? Couldn’t she make recommendations herself? Wasn’t that her job? Given the huge spike of traffic about a possible attack (several officials have used the phrase “hair on fire” to describe the demeanor of those issuing the warnings), should she have been satisfied with the lack of any sign that the FBI wasn’t tracking down the cells? Shouldn’t she have asked for positive evidence that it was tracking them down?

And most devastatingly:

Former Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer posed the question directly: Wasn’t it your responsibility to make sure that the word went down the chain, that orders were followed up by action?

Just as the Bush administration has declined to admit any mistakes, Condi Rice declined to take any responsibility. No, she answered, the FBI had that responsibility. Crisis management? That was Dick Clarke’s job. “[If] I needed to do anything,” she said, “I would have been asked to do it. I was not asked to do it.”

Jamie Gorelick, a former assistant attorney general (and thus someone who knows the ways of the FBI), drove the point home. The commission’s staff has learned, she told Rice, that the high-level intelligence warnings were not sent down the chain of command. The secretary of transportation had no idea about the threat-chatter nor did anyone at the Federal Aviation Administration. FBI field offices and special agents also heard nothing about it. Yes, FBI headquarters sent out a few messages, but have you seen them? Gorelick asked. “They are feckless,” she went on. “They don’t tell anybody anything. They don’t put anybody at battle stations.”

Bob Kerrey was blunter still. “One of the first things I learned when I came into this town,” he said, “was that CIA and FBI don’t talk to each other.” It has long been reported that regional agents deep inside the FBI wrote reports about strange Arabs taking flight lessons and that analysts inside the CIA were reporting that Arab terrorists might be inside the United States. If both pieces of information were forced up to the tops of their respective bureaucracies, couldn’t someone have put them together? “All it had to do was be put on intel links and the game’s over,” Kerrey said, perhaps a bit dramatically, the conspiracy “would have been rolled up.”

And here’s Saletan, exploring the Condi Rice Dictionary:

Gathering threats: Unclear perils that previous administrations irresponsibly failed to confront quickly. Example: For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient. Historically, democratic societies have been slow to react to gathering threats, tending instead to wait to confront threats until they are too dangerous to ignore or until it is too late.

Vague threats: Unclear perils that the Bush administration understandably failed to confront quickly. Example: The threat reporting that we received in the spring and summer of 2001 was not specific as to time, nor place, nor manner of attack. … The threat reporting was frustratingly vague.

Specific warnings: The precise, useful alerts the administration issued based on the information it got. Example: I asked Dick [Clarke] to make sure that domestic agencies were aware of the heightened threat period and were taking appropriate steps to respond. … The FAA issued at least five civil aviation security information circulars to all U.S. airlines and airport security personnel, including specific warnings about the possibility of hijacking.

Briefing: Addition to a warning, without which the warning is insufficient. Example: To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman, this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.

Recommendation: Addition to a briefing, without which the briefing is insufficient. Example: In the memorandum that Dick Clarke sent me on Jan. 25, he mentions sleeper cells. There is no mention or recommendation of anything that needs to be done about them.

This last item, if Saletan isn’t quoting out of context, sounds really damning. “My counterterrorism chief told me that there were terrorist sleeper cells in the U.S., but he didn’t suggest anything needed to be done about it, so I didn’t?”

Loyal Republican Howard Kurtz has a round-up. He can’t pretend it was a good day for his side. But he does start out with a truly breathtaking act of chutzpah: to demonstrate that the Administration wasn’t really asleep at the switch, he points out that the media weren’t heavily covering al-Qaeda in advance of 9-11, as if the media didn’t take much of their lead on such matters from the government.

Garance Frank-Ruta at Tapped wasn’t impressed, asking “Where’s that Buck Stop, Again”

I don’t know of any public opinion polling on the topic, but it doesn’t sound as if Rice did herself, or her boss, any good.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com