I watched almost all of the commission hearing with Condoleeza Rice last night on CSPAN. Overall, I think she did a good job, and the content of her statements and answers was more or less what I expected.

I haven’t watched any previous testimony from others, and I don’t usually watch these things at all. I was a little surprised at the way those involved, both the commissioners and Rice, handled themselves and presented their questions and answers. It seemed like nothing more than a Sunday morning news show, except that the interviewee was under oath.

Some of the questioners would go on and on and on about what they heard or what others have said, then asked a yes/no question and acted as if they expected only a yes/no answer. Rice obviously spent a lot of time selling her views and opinions, but so did the commissioners.

I guess I was expecting something a little more grown-up.

I don’t think anything big happened yesterday. Rice refuted a lot of the claims made by Clarke and others, and she stuck to her message (which I personally agree with, for the most part) about the lack of coordinated intelligence, the fact that America was not willing to do things like begin massive screenings at airports or send troops to Afghanistan, and that the Clinton policies had not only been continued but, in some cases, expanded. With hindsight, Clarke and others are charging that the Bush team didn’t expand the existing plans quickly enough.

But, of course, if we had quadrupled security at airports, fired cruise missiles into terrorist training camps and sent the Special Forces after Osama bin Laden, AND PREVENTED 9/11, many people would now be complaining that we’re spending too much money and losing American lives (as we surely would have) while inconveniencing millions of air travelers and the ACLU would fighting any kind of secret threat list or a screening process that spent extra time with Arab-looking young men.

You might argue that no one would complain about preventing 9/11, but you’d be wrong. The reason you’d be wrong is

  1. The CIA and FBI might not even know that they had stopped a major operation. They’d apprehend a few guys and shut down a few support lines, but they’d never learn the full plan or how close the bad guys had come to bringing hell to the USA. Even if some of the prisoners squawked, officials would wonder how much was true and how much was bluster or misinformation, just like we do now (after 9/11) when detainees talk of major plans.
  2. Even if the CIA and the FBI did suspect, more or less, what was planned, policy makers would only see some of that information, mostly in summary form, and would then decide for themselves how much of it was true and act accordingly.
  3. The American public would learn very few, if any, of the details. Look at all those planes that were stopped around Christmas. For all we know the CIA has detailed information about how they were going to be hijacked and crashed into Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Berlin. Everyone today more or less shrugs those stoppages off and figures it was a false alarm, but WE DON’T KNOW. And this is AFTER 9/11. The public would have had even less interest before 9/11.
  4. It would have been politically disastrous to send troops into Afghanistan in the spring or summer 2001. We had a lot of protest and predictions of dire failure in October of 2001 AFTER 9/11. And don’t forget that invading Afghanistan in the spring or summer of 2001, capturing Osama bin Laden, killing hundreds of terrorists, and overthrowing the Taliban would not have prevented 9/11 anyway. The hijackers were all in the US before Bush took office. To suggest that the Bush administration was remiss for not going into Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 is not only unrealistic, it is dishonest.
  5. The American public’s perception of the world situation changed dramatically in a few hours one Tuesday morning. To say that America’s opinion of the real world, and our place in it, changed more on that day than on any other day in history might not be out of line. People claim to be trying to think in pre-9/11 terms when discussing this matter, and they might even be trying to, but trying isn’t doing. I don’t think it can really be done. The paradigm has changed. Our fundamental outlook on things has been irrevocably altered. Things that seem painfully obvious to even the most ignorant today seemed like a Hollywood movie on 9/10/01. If 9/11 had been prevented, we would not have all undergone that paradigm shift. If the PATRIOT Act had been implemented in early 2001 and 9/11 had been prevented somehow, either due to the Act or by other means, I would probably be writing today about what a rape of my citizenship PATRIOT is. That’s still an argument, but the playing field is far, far different today because of 9/11.

The implication of many critics is that many homeland security measures put into place after 9/11 should have been put into place before 9/11. Never mind that it would have taken years to pass a Homeland Security Department act if 9/11 hadn’t whipped folks into action. The simple fact is that we were not on a war footing, as Dr. Rice said. Most of America still isn’t on a war footing, though we accept things and expect things today that we didn’t previously.

There’s always someone who can stand up after the fact and say “See! I told you so!” Whenever a disaster strikes, whether man-made or otherwise, there’s almost always someone who predicted it and was ignored. Look at the Titanic. Look at the Challenger. Look at the Columbia. There are always people who should have been listened to. After the fact, we all wish that they had been listened to. But it doesn’t seem so obvious at the time. I’m not excusing those who ignored the voice of reason, of course. I’m simply pointing out that we don’t always know what’s reasonable until it’s too late.

One place where I think Rice faltered was when she was questioned about the lack of a response to the attack on the USS Cole. At the time I felt we should have done something, anything. But after our responses to attacks in the previous few years, I wasn’t advocating more of the same. I think that fell through the cracks between administrations, and that’s unfortunate and (I think) unforgivable. The issues I listed above would have limited our response, of course, but to do nothing was a sin.

Her response to Kerrey that Kerrey himself suggested at the time that action against Iraq might be an option in the aftermath of the Cole attack scored major points and probably hurt Kerrey’s credibility on the matter, but it didn’t address the issue. It just deflected it.

Going back to my baseball analogy from last week, Rice hauled in the fly ball off the bat of Richard Clarke rather deftly. What initially appeared to have a chance of going out of the park hung up in the air and dropped rather harmlessly into Rice’s glove. Maybe Clarke didn’t hit the ball as hard as many thought he did. Maybe the wind was blowing in from Right. Maybe the Right field fences are just a hell of a long way from the plate and almost everything hit in that direction dies quietly. Maybe the ball was too high. In any event, the putout goes FO9 for those keeping score at home, and we’ll see what the Elephants have in the bottom of the inning.

UPDATE: ACE discusses the pre-emptive attack on AQ issue.