Condi's story

Condi takes the oath

And she's sticking to it

Almost two weeks after the explosive charges leveled by former Bush White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke made it inevitable, Condoleezza Rice finally appeared before the 9-11 commission in public and under oath to give her testimony.

I watched it all. I considered it my civic duty. Oh, all right — I like a good scandal, too!

Pat Oliphant cartoon. Click to enlarge. Pat Oliphant (click picture to enlarge)

Condi swept into the hearing room like royalty, followed by five aides to carry her notebooks and papers. Condi told the administration's story and did not deviate from the script. Stripped to essentials, that story is this: we did everything we could and we couldn't do more because our hands were tied by "structural problems" and "legal impediments" that previous administrations should have fixed.

Condi was crafty — knowing that panelists had just 10 minutes each for questioning, she filibustered when answering any pointed or challenging questions, but gave concise yes/no answers to panelists whose questions were softballs.

The most riveting moments came when Richard Ben-Venista managed to get Condi to reveal the classified title of a presidential daily briefing (PDB) given to Bush in August, 2001 — "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" — and Bob Kerrey followed up by revealing that the PDB said "the F.B.I. indicates patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking. That's the language of the memo that was briefed to the president on the 6th of August."

Condi responded that the brief was "historical" and didn't contain any threat information: "Nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where. This was not a threat report to the president."

Hello! If you're waiting for someone to tell you the specific time, place, and method, you don't need a National Security Advisor, an FBI, or a CIA. A reasonably bright thirteen-year old would know what to do!

Debris of World Trade Center

Condi insisted that there was "no silver bullet" that would have prevented 9/11, and in that I believe she's right. Yes, you can string together a lot of ifs and ands to get to a might possibly could have been prevented conclusion, but the chances of all those ifs falling into place are extremely remote.

And I don't think that reasonable people can believe that the Bush administration knew about the impending attacks and, for whatever reason, chose not to react.

After 9/11 there was a lot of talk about not "connecting the dots." The assumption that I think many people probably made is that "the dots" were few and far between and that not connecting them was not unimaginable.

What is beginning to emerge, even from the meagre amount of information made public so far, is that there were quite a lot of dots, some of them were pretty darned big, and the dots weren't all that far apart. That doesn't mean that even if someone had connected the dots 9/11 could have been prevented. It might have happened anyway.

But it is also becoming clear that the threat wasn't taken seriously enough to cause the administration to "shake the trees" of a system they knew to be dysfunctional (those "structural and legal impediments"). Instead, the top members of the administration, starting with Bush on down, maintained their vacation schedules, delegated but did not follow up, and deluded themselves into thinking that calling a meeting and issuing advisories constitutes taking action.

In short, Richard Clarke and others who have said that the Bush administration didn't treat terrorism as an urgent priority, that they put it on the back burner, are right. And what that means is that they could have done more. They might not have been successful, but they didn't do all they could have. Making that admission would be a true act of leadership.

And pigs might fly.