Jewish World Review April 11, 2004 / 21 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues | Condoleezza Rice's appearance before the 9/11 Commission was more about political theater than fact-finding.

Commission co-chairman Thomas Kean pretty much gave the game away when, prior to Rice agreeing to testify, he said that he merely wanted Rice to reiterate in public what she had told the commission in private.

In other words, his goal for the hearing was to learn nothing new.

Any doubts that the real game was political theater were dissipated by the badgering, argumentative questions of Democratic Commissioners Richard Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey.

Consider this revealing exchange:

BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th (Presidential Daily Briefing) warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?

RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Now, the

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste

BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the

RICE: I would like to finish my point here.

BEN-VENISTE: I didn't know there was a point.

RICE: Given that - you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.

BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.

So, Ben-Veniste asks a question, did the report warn of attacks? He then denies having asked the question when Rice attempts to answer it. And he's plainly uninterested in her answer.

Perhaps that's because Ben-Veniste didn't actually need to learn what the report said from Rice. He had access to the actual document. His "question" was pure posturing, not fact-finding.

While this commission will clearly continue to wallow in the blame game, Rice's testimony, properly considered, should clear the field for a discussion of the real terrorism issues.

At this point, it's clear that the Bush administration continued all of the Clinton administration's efforts against al-Qaida and was considering new initiatives. And it did all the things previously done in response to the threat spike in spring and summer of 2001: issue warnings, strengthen defenses, intensify disruptive counter-terrorism activities.

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It was always likely that, after 9/11, things that might have prevented it would become known. And indeed that is the case. Visas were processed that were incomplete. Two known al-Qaida operatives in the country weren't apprehended or tracked. There wasn't an aggressive enough investigation of another al-Qaida operative who was apprehended prior to the attack.

This lack of vigilance was in part a result of long-standing institutional cultures, practices and law. The notion that in its first eight months, the Bush administration should have changed the culture of the State Department's easy-going visa review process, the FBI's emphasis on solving crimes rather than combating terrorism, and the legal barriers to sharing investigative products is a bit far-fetched.

So, all that's really left is a controversy about who was meeting how frequency with whom about what. The Bush administration, in contrast to the Clinton administration, is a button-down, hierarchical structure in which people are expected to do their jobs.

The allegation is being made that if more senior officials had been meeting more frequently in response to the threat spike, perhaps somehow something would have been shaken loose and 9/11 prevented. That's a highly speculative and dubious proposition.

All of this is a diversion from the truly important questions: Did the Bush administration learn the right lessons from 9/11? Are we now going about protecting the United States from terrorist attacks in the right way?

Paradoxically, the United States is probably doing both too little and too much about terrorism.

Domestically, despite the establishment of the Homeland Security department, the critical functions involved in detecting and disrupting terrorist activities are still scattered throughout the government. The federal government is still not organized to maximize the ability to prevent a domestic terrorist attack.

Internationally, the Bush administration is correct that the United States is made more secure by the spread of democracy and market economies. But making the United States a blunt instrument of transformation, particularly in the Muslim and Arab world, may increase rather than reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

These are the real issues, as opposed to the 9/11 Commission's political theater, that should engage the country.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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