The Washington Post has a piece today taking apart Condoleezza Rice. And who would guess? It is by Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank, a co-byline signaling that the Bush administration will inevitably be in for a world of hurt. The duo hits on some genuine contradictions between what Rice and other administration officials have said. I heard Jeff Greenfield on Imus this morning saying something about how devastating this piece is for Rice. But, not surprisingly, it is not as bad for Rice as Pincus and Milbank make it sound. Here’s my quick take on the major issues they raise.
‐Pincus and Milbank point out that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has “contradicted Rice’s claim that the White House had a strategy before 9/11 for military operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban.” This is true, but it appears that Armitage is wrong. My understanding of the plan, from conversations with Bush officials and from the reporting that has appeared on it elsewhere, is that it clearly included a military option, even if it was vague and set to be phased in only after other options had failed.
‐Pincus and Milbank say that the CIA has “contradicted Rice’s earlier assertion that Bush had requested a CIA briefing in the summer of 2001 because of elevated terrorist threats.” This is a he said/she said. Apparently the CIA staffer who delivered this briefing has said he doesn’t recall that it was in response to a request by Bush. Others apparently recall the briefer saying at the time that the paper was in response to the president’s questions. It’s possible that both sides are right–Bush didn’t request the specific briefing, but the CIA official prepared it in response to questions Bush had asked at various times. This, of course, is speculation. But it’s not clear why this matters in particular. Bush was getting daily briefings from CIA Director George Tenet, so he was very aware of the terror threat. By one estimate al Qaeda came up in 46 CIA briefings and 13 of those briefings were at the request of White House officials.
‐Pincus and Milbank write, “Rice’s assertion this week that Bush told her on September 16, 2001, that ‘Iraq is to the side’ appeared to be contradicted by an order signed by Bush on September 17 directing the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq.” This is not necessarily a contradiction. You can have military options for a country that is still “to the side.” We surely are doing military planning about North Korea, but it has been “to the side” for a couple of years now. Iraq was off to the side for at least a year as the administration focused on Afghanistan. My understanding is that the military options requested in September 2001 had mostly to do with contingencies that might arise if Saddam tried to take advantage of the situation while we were occupied in Afghanistan.
‐Pincus and Milbank report, “Rice…has contradicted Vice President Cheney’s assertion that Clarke was ‘out of the loop’ and his intimation that Clarke had been demoted.” Cheney was just wrong to say Clarke was “out of the loop”–he wasn’t. He wasn’t demoted either, although Cheney is not the only one who maintains this. Clarke himself has said it. So who’s lying? Probably no one. The fact is that Clarke had extraordinary influence in Clinton foreign policymaking, because the State Department and the Pentagon had been downgraded as Sandy Berger consolidated his power at the NSC. Clarke could chair meetings of the so-called “principals” when he worked for Berger. When Bush took over, something like regular order was restored and Clarke no longer had this kind of power. So, he felt like he was demoted, but he wasn’t formally.
‐Pincus and Milbank return to Rice’s famous statement, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that those people could have taken an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center.” Rice was wrong about that. A few people had predicted or speculated about it over the years. But it’s important to realize the context of Condi’s statement. She was responding to a long-ago press frenzy about an August 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing that allegedly warned of the September 11 attacks. Rice was rightly knocking down the notion that that briefing included explicit warnings of 9/11-like attacks.
‐Pincus and Milbank point out that Rice has both belittled Clarke’s ideas and said that the Bush team built on them. Specifically, they cite her saying, “No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration.” Clarke said the same thing in August 2002 and has since stipulated that his briefing then was true. Then, they cite Rice saying most of Clarke’s ideas “had already been tried or rejected in the Clinton administration.” This is a true statement. Unfortunately, they had mostly been rejected, at least when it came to the most important ones. Finally, they cite her saying–in what is supposed to be a “Gotcha!” quote–”He sent us a set of ideas that would perhaps help us roll back al Qaeda over a three- to five-year period; we acted on those ideas very quickly.” This also is true. Again, Clarke in his 2002 briefing talked about the Bush team taking up his ideas in January. Clarke was asked on January 25, the third day of the administration officially being in office, to formally present his ideas, which the Bush team then proceeded to build on.
‐Pincus and Milbank point out that Rice has criticized Clarke as presiding as counterterrorism czar in the 1990s when al Qaeda grew stronger and nothing much was done about it, yet has defended keeping him on when she took over: “I wanted somebody experienced in that area precisely to carry on the Clinton administration policy.” I think blaming Clarke for the 1990s is a cheap shot, but the weakness of Clinton counterterrorism policy is worth pointing out in this debate since Clarke is so determined to skate over it. It was perfectly reasonable for Rice to conclude upon taking office that Clarke wasn’t the problem with Clinton counterterrorism policy, and keep him on board as an aggressive and talented staffer. In theory, it made sense to maintain that continuity with Clinton policy as the Bush team tried to come up with something better (although, we now know, much too slowly).