If there was one point Condoleezza Rice wanted to drive home during her testimony before the 9/11 Commission yesterday, it was that President Bush had been in office just "233 days" before the September 11 attacks. She repeated that number four times, and the implication was clear to the packed audience in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building: Bush inherited the problem of Al Qaeda and didn't have enough time to do much about it. Several commissioners viewed this excuse as less than exculpatory, and pressed Rice on what she didn't do during those 233 days -- most importantly, her decision not to order the National Security Council's principal officials to respond to an increase in terrorist threat intelligence during the summer of 2001.
But when Rice attempted to shift the debate to what she thought would be more solid ground -- the administration's post-9/11 policies -- the Commission indicated how its report might truly knock the White House off balance. If the questions commissioners posed to Rice yesterday are any indication, their final report may call into question how well the Bush administration understands the terrorist threat now -- three years after 9/11.
Rice's repeated references to "233 days" were designed to solve the administration's Richard Clarke problem. (Clarke, of course, gave the White House a migraine last month by alleging it was insufficiently attentive to Al Qaeda before 9/11.) But this strategy misunderstands the 9/11 Commission. The likelihood of the Commission blaming either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton for failing to prevent the attacks has always been slim. In January, Republican Commissioner John Lehman told the Daily News that the Commission's final report would ultimately throw the Bush administration "a few hits, but the problems are embedded bureaucratic problems." The commissioners' own senses of the gravity of their assignment -- Tim Roemer emphasized to me in a January interview that he and his colleagues are serving on "one of the most important commissions in the history of the country" -- will likely lead them to view the recommendations they make for the future as vastly more important than playing a retroactive blame game. As a result, their forthcoming assessments will call attention to how much remains to be done to prevent future terrorist attacks. And it's there that the Commission surely poses its most potent threat to Bush's reelection efforts.
Rice repeatedly said yesterday that there were "systemic" problems with how the U.S. government fought terrorism before 9/11. She pointed to the Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as the Bush administration's fixes for these flaws -- flaws that were too large, she said, and too "systemic" to tackle during the administration's first 233 days. Yet even Fred Fielding, one of the Commission's more stalwart Republicans, indicated that these measures may be insufficient. "A problem that's bothering us," he said, "is that it doesn't appear to us, even with the changes up until now, that it's solved the institutional versus institutional issues, which--maybe it has, but, you know, it's of grave concern to us." Fielding further signaled his concern about the "MI-5 issue"--that is, the still-unaccomplished task of assembling a domestic intelligence service similar to Britain's MI-5, as the Gilmore Commission on homeland security has recommended. Rice tried to put a bright face on things, saying, "Every day now in the Oval Office in the morning, the FBI director and the CIA director sit with the president, sharing information in ways that they would have been prohibited to share that information before." To which Fielding quickly replied: "It may be solved at the top. We've got to make sure it's solved at the bottom."
Other commissioners worried that the Bush administration's approach to terrorism may suffer from more basic problems. Republican James Thompson -- who led the offensive against Clarke at the last round of hearings--questioned whether the White House even understands twenty-first century terrorism: "You referenced ... all these state-sponsored terrorist activities," he said to Rice, "when we know today that the real threat is from either rogue states -- Iran, North Korea -- or from stateless terrorist organizations -- Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas. Does the Bush administration get this difference?" Rice, apparently caught off guard, countered that when terrorists "can get states to cooperate with them or when they can get states to acquiesce in their being on their territory, they're much more effective." But reconfiguring the terrorist threat to focus mainly on state sponsorship is problematic: It treats the terrorists themselves as a subsidiary concern. And, as the Bush administration has demonstrated in Afghanistan, this strategy can lull the U.S. government into ignoring the ongoing presence of terrorists in a country even after their state sponsors have been defeated. Rice's answer to Thompson's question -- "Does the Bush administration get this difference?" -- seemed to be: No.
Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey went even further. "We underestimate that this war on terrorism is really a war against radical Islam," he said. "Terrorism is a tactic. It's not a war itself." Kerrey, a liberal advocate of the Iraq war, argued that the administration's current fecklessness in Iraq was undermining U.S. interests. "I don't think we understand how the Muslim world views us, and I'm terribly worried that the military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they're all bad," he said.
All of this points to the real political damage the 9/11 Commission could inflict on President Bush. Ever since Clarke issued his account of a Bush administration asleep at the switch in 2001, the president's allies have urged him to reframe the debate toward his post-9/11 posture. But yesterday's hearings indicate that the 9/11 Commission might issue recommendations that imply the Bush administration still doesn't know how to combat Islamist terrorism three years after the attacks -- thereby robbing Bush of what is perhaps his cardinal political asset. And if that's what the Commission does, neither Rice nor any of her colleagues will be able to claim they only had 233 days to understand the problem.
Spencer Ackerman is an assistant editor at TNR.