What we learned from Rice

She's not rattled, when on a roll


April 09, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Oh, the things one could learn yesterday from watching the televised testimony of Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser:

1. Rice, a former provost of Stanford University, appears to be too busy or too incurious to read much outside of her briefing papers.

Take, for example, the recent best-selling book by Richard Clarke, the president's former top counter-terrorism official. In it, Clarke charges that Bush and the White House all but ignored the threat of al-Qaida until the September 2001 attacks.

Here's how Rice conceded that, despite earlier White House denials, Clarke probably did meet Bush on Sept. 12, 2001: "Initially, [Clarke] said that the president was wandering in the situation room - this is in the book, I gather - looking for something to do, and they had a conversation. Later on, he said that he was pulled aside. So I don't know the context of the discussion." (Emphasis added.)

2. By comparison, members of the 9/11 commission were running a book club.

Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, was cited repeatedly yesterday. So was Bob Woodward's book, Bush at War, in which the president was quoted as acknowledging that terrorism was not a priority before the attacks. CNN's Wolf Blitzer said yesterday that commission aides relied heavily on another new book, Ghost Wars, by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, about Osama bin Laden and the CIA.

3. Telling the media they can't see something only makes them more interested.

The Bush administration initially fought the creation of the commission, then fought the idea of senior government officials testifying under oath, then fought even harder against Rice's appearance in public. After a White House effort to discredit Clarke failed to erase public memory of his charges, the administration allowed Rice to testify under oath, in public, with the guarantee that no other officials would be subpoenaed.

Rice's testimony yesterday morning, consuming nearly three hours, was carried live and in full, not just on cable news channels, but on ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. (The Food Network and Spike TV held off.) That's Iran-Contra or Watergate territory - far more attention than earlier testimony by Secretary of State Colin Powell or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was given.

4. Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, really does live in a world where race and gender no longer matter.

Kerrey repeatedly addressed Rice, an African-American who is the first woman to serve in her post, as "Dr. Clarke" - an allusion to the white, male former counter-terrorism aide. Rice finally said, "I don't think I look like Dick Clarke." (Note also her reference to "Dick" Clarke, a way, perhaps of making him seem a little less an American Braveheart and a little more American Bandstand.)

5. If you're going to use metaphors to describe crisis, they'd better hold up under scrutiny.

Bush aides have publicly said the president told them: "I'm tired of swatting flies." He was both demanding an overarching strategy to counter al-Qaida and disparaging the Clinton administration's ad hoc approach.

Kerrey yesterday sounded angry, saying the Bush administration had ignored Clinton-era policies championed by Clarke: "Can you tell me one example where the president `swatted a fly' when it came to al-Qaida prior to 9/11? ... We only `swatted a fly' once, on the 20th of August 1998" - when Clinton authorized the bombing of a site where bin Laden was suspected to be in Sudan. "We didn't `swat any flies' afterward. How the hell could [Bush] be tired?"

6. Panel members and the witness seemed to be attending different televised events.

Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor, seemed to be auditioning to replace Sam Waterston on NBC's Law & Order. Rice, meanwhile, appeared to be taking part in a think tank conference on C-SPAN. Her answers to questions about the Bush administration's perceived inaction involved the FBI "tasking" field offices with added responsibility, and the issuance of "circulars" (memos) by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was bureaucratic lingo unlikely to soothe survivors of those killed in the attacks.

7. It would seem to take a lot to rattle Rice.

She proved composed and confident in the face of skeptical questions from the panel's Democrats. She didn't apologize or betray contrition, even fleetingly, for one of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history, instead recounting as context a list of missteps in handling terrorism dating back to the Reagan administration two decades ago.

Her most impressive accomplishment may have been her ability to maintain, simultaneously, two contradictory facial expressions throughout her testimony: a beatific smile that suggested a clear conscience, and a furrowed brow that indicated sober concern.

At the end, Rice rose, and beamed. No more televised testimony under oath for her. She has the commission's word.

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