Thursday, October 05, 2006

Explaining the Rice "Blow Off"

Slate summarizes the situation described by Woodward's book, but neither the 9/11 commission nor previous books highlight the meeting--why?

Pages 49–52: On July 10, 2001, George Tenet and his top terrorism expert, Cofer Black, visited Condi Rice and warned that a major terrorist attack was coming. "It's my sixth sense, but I feel it coming," said Tenet. "This could be the big one." They felt like the then-national security adviser blew them off.

Page 79: "Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the bin Laden threat, but she just didn't get there in time, Tenet thought. He felt he had done his job, laid it on the line very directly about the threat, but Rice had not moved quickly. He felt she wasn't organized and didn't push people as he tried to do at the CIA." Rice has said the July meeting was not as dramatic as Tenet remembers. Woodward quotes Cofer Black: "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head."

I think the answer lies in the workings of humans and bureaucracies. Remember these things:
  1. Tenet and Black have been focused on bin Laden for years. Rice has been on the job for less than 6 months. She was the foreign policy guru for a campaign that never mentioned bin Laden.
  2. There's no good solution to the bin Laden problem.
  3. Tenet and Black have been out of the administration for years, Rice is still in it.
  4. People like to make their stories consistent.
And a fourth: the old bureaucrat's saying "it's hard to remember your goal was to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators". New bureaucrats always focus on the goal, old bureaucrats fight the alligators.

So, Tenet and Black rush off to see Rice with a hot potato for which they've no clear solution. But Rice knows her boss isn't good on coming up with solutions, and certainly doesn't want to do anything Clinton did before him. She also knows Dick Clarke and other bureaucrats are trying to put together an overall plan to drain the swamp (which they'll have ready in early September). So, at best she may have sent Tenet to Ashcroft (Freeh has left, I think, and Mueller won't come on board until September). So much for the meeting--just another case where the linkage between career types and political types breaks down during the transition.

How about the new prominence of the meeting? People are loyal to their fellows. Woodward's earlier books and the 9/11 commission were working right after Tenet and Black had retired. I suspect their residual loyalty to the administration meant they didn't highlight the "blowoff". Now, though, it's 2 more years later. Rice is still loyal to the administration but Tenet and Black have had more time to nurse grievances. Rice's story is consistent: because she took no action, she couldn't have been given any information that should have caused her to act. That tends to shift the onus back to the CIA, which rubs T and B the wrong way. So now they start to highlight the urgency of the meeting and the failure of Rice to act. No one says there was a failure of imagination or a lack of capacity to act.

There may not be any lying going on and, absent any tape recording or contemporaneous notes, we may never know the truth.

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