No recollection

October 04, 2006

Suddenly 9/11 is back on people's minds. Bill Clinton let Chris Wallace of Fox News feel his pain last month over accusations that he hadn't done enough to chase down al-Qaida. Now comes a book by Bob Woodward that discusses a previously unremarked-upon meeting between George J. Tenet, then CIA director, and Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, on July 10, 2001, at which Mr. Tenet reportedly warned her that an attack was imminent.

Ms. Rice's first response was to say she had no specific memory of such a meeting. Now the State Department confirms that she not only had the meeting but also told Mr. Tenet to brief Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft, who was attorney general, as well. Mr. Ashcroft, in turn, says he has no memory of that meeting.

In the meantime, members of the 9/11 commission expressed outrage that they had never been told about the Rice-Tenet get-together, until it came out that two of their number had in fact been briefed on it by Mr. Tenet, in January 2004. One of them was Philip Zelikow, who (1) wrote the best-selling 9/11 commission report, but (2) left out any mention of the July warning, and then (3) went to work for Ms. Rice as State Department counselor.

Ms. Rice has never given the impression that before Sept. 11, 2001, she let the threat of al-Qaida weigh very heavily on her mind, or that since then she has taken very kindly to questions about why that was. She announced after the attacks that no one could have foreseen the use of passenger planes as missiles against buildings, although in fact that very possibility was of great concern to experts on terrorism within her own government. Reports from the early days of the Bush White House suggest that she felt the pursuit of Osama bin Laden had been a priority of the much-loathed Clinton administration and therefore by definition something that belonged on a back burner.

Is it unseemly finger-pointing to bring this all up now, or is it a moment of accountability? Ms. Rice is good at getting huffy when questions about 9/11 come up, and not so good at giving clear and direct answers and then sticking to them. She might do well to remember that she is a key figure in an administration that continues to portray its opposition as weak on terror - but that did, after all, spend the rather pivotal summer of 2001 doing nothing at all about it.

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