April 8, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Setting the Record Straight: Condoleezza Rice and the 9/11 Commission

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's strong performance in her appearance before the September 11 Commission should put to rest any notion that the Bush administration was complacent or inattentive to the terrorist threat facing the United States before September 11. Rice capably defended the Bush White House against the storm of controversy created by former National Security Council staffer Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies, as well as against Mr. Clarke's testimony before the Commission. Dr. Rice was convincing, composed, and eloquent in her opening statement and in her answers to the Commission's pointed-and sometimes partisan-questioning.

While the White House had resisted her public testimony on principle, in the end it was the right decision to allow Dr. Rice to make the case as only she could. In the process, she pressed home the case for the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act. As Dr. Rice testified, without these two elements, the United States would be as vulnerable to intelligence failures as it was prior to September 11.


Contre Clarke

The charges Mr. Clarke has laid at the Bush administration's door are threefold: First, that an unheeded August 6, 2001, intelligence memorandum contained specific information that airlines would be used by terrorists as missiles against targets in the United States; second, that President Bush was uninterested in the topic of terrorism and so obsessed with the problem of Saddam Hussein that he neglected Al Qaeda; and third, that the Bush administration did a worse job than the Clinton administration on terrorism and failed to take advantage of plans produced under Mr. Clinton to fight Al Qaeda.

In her testimony, Dr. Rice spoke to these charges, countering them effectively. Under heated questioning from Democrats on the Commission, she stressed that the August 6 memo was "historic" and "analytical" in nature and did not contain any "actionable" intelligence. This memo has been declassified for the Committee's use, and members will be able to judge themselves. Had the memo contained a more specific warning about what would happen, she said, "the White House would have moved heaven and earth to prevent it." As it was, heightened security alerts during the summer of 2001 pointed to attacks outside the United States-in Geneva, in Israel, and elsewhere in the Middle East-but not within the United States.

The real problem, as Dr. Rice testified, was not distraction or indifference, but that a lack of intelligence fusion prevented the many intelligence and enforcement agencies from pooling their resources and information. The Federal Bureau of Intelligence could not talk to the Central Intelligence Agency or to the Defense Intelligence Agency-as a matter of culture, tradition, and law. Though this problem was well known, no one-not in the Clinton administration during its eight years in office, not in the young Bush administration, and not in any preceding administration-had shown the political will to reorganize these services so that intelligence would flow through the right channels. Only since September 11, with the creation of the Homeland Security Department and the passage of the Patriot Act, has this problem been addressed.

Furthermore, Dr. Rice made it very clear that there had been no effective plan to eradicate Al Qaeda prior to September 11-that there was no silver bullet bequeathed by the Clinton National Security team that the Bush administration had somehow overlooked. What proposals there were from the prior administration did not amount to the kind of strategic plan against terrorist networks and their state sponsors that the Bush administration concluded was needed. President Bush was tired of "swatting mosquitoes" (i.e., individual terrorists), which had been the Clinton administration's practice, and wanted to develop a plan that focused more broadly on undermining the radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had gaven bin Laden sanctuary and allowed him to train thousands of terrorists. Such a strategic plan was in the works by the summer of 2001.

And finally, Dr. Rice convincingly disputed the claim that some have made, as part of the argument that President Bush was initially lax on terrorism, that the Clinton White House managed to foil a Millennium attack on the United States. It has been Mr. Clarke's contention that by gathering a high-level working group at the White House, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger succeeded in "shaking the trees" so that credible intelligence came to light and contributed to the foiling of a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. As Dr. Rice testified, however, it was an enterprising customs agent on the Canadian border who saved the day when she sensed something deeply suspicious about Ahmed Ressam-who was attempting to cross the U.S. border with a van full of explosive materials and a map of Los Angeles-and gave chase.


The Bottom Line

The point Dr. Rice hammered home is worth repeating here: Before September 11, there was no political will to reinvent the way intelligence was collected and shared between agencies within and without the United States. "The problem was that for a country that had not been attacked on its territory in a major way in almost 200 years," she said, "there were lots of structural impediments to those [changes].... Those changes should have been made over a long period of time."

The creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the passage of the Patriot Act have given those who lead U.S. counterterrorism efforts important tools that were missing prior to September 11. But even today, the Patriot Act remains deeply controversial, especially among those who now blame the Bush administration for not "connecting the dots" of intelligence before the 2001 attacks (just as some critics of preemption blame the administration for not attacking Afghanistan before September 11). Dr. Rice's testimony to the September 11 Commission is a good reminder of how far we have come since September 11 and will be a powerful part of the argument why the Patriot Act remains essential in the war against terrorism.

Helle Dale is Director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies, and James Phillips is Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy