Thursday, April 8, 2004

Yesterday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified under oath before the September 11 commission. As expected, it was more an exercise in fingerpointing than a search for insight. Miss Rice’s cool performance revealed as much about the partisan intent of some of the commissioners as it did the administration’s actions against al Qaeda.

Miss Rice acknowledged that there was no “silver bullet” that would have prevented the September 11 attacks, but insisted that the Bush administration took the threat of al Qaeda extremely seriously, contrary to the claims of former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke. As she noted, “The president was paying attention to this, how much higher-level can you get?”

In what was unquestionably the low point of the hearing, Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste interrogated Miss Rice with a prosecutory tone and persecutory manner. The former chief Democratic council to the Watergate hearings repeatedly interrupted Miss Rice, as if trying to sway the jury of pubic opinion by his badgering and grandstanding.

To her credit, Miss Rice refused to be cowed by Mr. Ben-Veniste and other party men on the commission like former Democratic Rep. Timothy Roemer, calmly answering the questions and attempting to give the members insight into the Bush administration’s thinking and activity on terrorism before September 11, 2001.

The lines of questioning pursued by Mr. Ben-Veniste and others on the panel raise serious doubts about the commission’s ability to fulfill the duties it was chartered with — “to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11 terrorist attacks,” and to “provide recommendations to guard against future attacks.” Besides, many actions to that end have been taken already.



In her opening statement, Miss Rice observed that for almost two decades, “The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them.” The full fury and firepower of the U.S. military fell for the first time on the terrorists thanks to the leadership of President Bush. The fight has been taken to the terrorists in Yemen and Afghanistan. The battle still rages in Iraq.

In the unlikely possibility that Messrs. Ben-Veniste and Roemer can set aside their prejudices against the Bush administration to produce a perceptive, prescriptive report, it may deserve careful consideration. However, the battle has moved forward. So has the nation, in sorrow and resolve. The partisan commissioners should drop their pointed fingers and do the same.

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