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Rice and Clarke 9/11 testimony not too different

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was everything most people expected her to be — confident, on-message, in full command of a wide array of facts, self-assured and on balance reassuring. Unfortunately, in part because of the limited mission of the Sept. 11 commission to which she offered her testimony, her appearance offered little hot news and little in the way of insight into the best way to approach the challenges that face the United States.

Her appearance came shortly after intensified fighting in Iraq raised new questions (or raised questions anew) about the wisdom of trying to approach the threat of terrorism by invading, occupying and attempting to democratize a country that had little to do with the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center almost three years ago. But the 9/11 commission’s charge is to explore intelligence shortcomings prior to that attack. By now (perhaps in part due to the commission’s work to date) a consensus is emerging about those shortcomings.

Despite some murmurings from some commission members, it seems unlikely a definitive smoking gun or “aha” moment will emerge that will give Americans confident knowledge that if only government or intelligence agencies had done X, the attack could have been prevented. And at this point, aside from possible suggestions that may be still to come about improving intelligence capability, there's really little point to such a gotcha exercise.

What was most striking about Rice’s testimony was how little, after all the sound and fury of the last couple of weeks, her version of events differed from that of former “terrorism czar” Richard Clarke. Both agreed that even if every suggestion from Clarke had been implemented immediately rather than undergo what some perceived as a laborious and tedious bureaucratic gauntlet, it was unlikely the attack would have been prevented.

Rice thought some of Clarke's ideas — hooking up with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan right away rather than trying to change Pakistan’s attitudes and working with forces in the south of Afghanistan first — would have taken the U.S. off-track. Clarke thought there was an insufficient sense of urgency in the Bush administration about terrorism as an imminent threat, while Rice thought it more important to proceed in a more deliberate fashion, developing broad strategy rather than implementing tactical responses. Both positions in these controversies are worthy of debate and discussion, and neither is inherently unreasonable.

Rice was more than a little complacent about the beneficial effects of the Patriot Act. We see some unfortunate and unnecessary invasions of Americans’ privacy, and believe those sections of it that were scheduled to expire should do so. Approaching this issue afresh, not in the heat of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and knowing more than we did then, rather than simply renewing it and enacting Patriot II, would be the wiser course.

Certain other questions deserve attention. All agree now that the separation between the CIA and the FBI, to the point that they hardly communicated with each other, had become almost obsessive. But it should be remembered that back in the 1970s, when former Idaho Sen. Frank Church held hearings that led to laws separating the two, his committee had uncovered genuine abuses involving the CIA conducting intrusive surveillance on U.S. citizens. The pendulum probably swung too far then, but having an international intelligence agency conducting investigations of American citizens could be troubling again. The new consensus bears watching.

Nobody, as far as we know, has yet discussed the possibility, though it peeks out through every discussion, that U.S. intelligence agencies failed not because they were too small and too deprived of resources, but because they have become too large, unwieldy and bureaucratic. Intelligent discussion of reform should include trimming them down to fighting weight as an alternative to merely giving them more money and power.

The issue of whether attacking Iraq was a wise move is beyond the scope of this commission. But it may be the most important question for Americans to consider and debate vigorously in the coming months and years.