Richard Ben-Veniste of the 9/11 committee was pretty exciting as prosecutor in the Watergate case. Now, during a hearing in Washington on Wednesday, he suddenly asked only one question of a witness and then turned to another commission member and said, "You can have all my time if I can have yours with Condoleezza Rice." Swinging a sash weight in a light-hearted warm-up. He is interested in a couple of discrepancies.
Condoleezza Rice sure heard that. She made a private appearance in front of the 9/11 commission, but won't make a public appearance under oath. Watch how far away she stays from Ben-Veniste. She says she preserves the confidentiality of the White House. Yet she goes on any television. Tonight she is scheduled for the "60 Minutes" show. There is no precedent stopping presidential advisers from testifying in front of a committee. Just in recent times, you had Zbigniew Brzezinski, Sanford Berger, John Podesta and Charles Ruff appear.
And right now you are entitled to think that by refusing to appear under oath, Rice has something to hide.
Already, she has us mixed up by saying in a private meeting that she never heard anybody mention that planes could be used as missiles. Then she asked to change that story and said that intelligence might have or did mention this two years before. Good and vague. For somebody in New York, this deepens the suspicion that because this was about New York, where they don't visit or even campaign, not with our population, the Bush people could care less about us.
Rice says that if everybody is nice, she might make another private appearance before the committee. Keep the door closed. She likes a set pattern for her appearances, a television interview with no crowd in which she speaks and smiles and the announcer says thank you. She is not made for a back and forth on a public stage with somebody like Ben-Veniste. She is a symbol of why people are starting not to believe the White House.
This all started on the streets of Manhattan in June 2003 with an outline of a book proposal by Richard B. Clarke, who had been a national security adviser for Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush. Clarke said that in the months before the World Trade Center attack Bush had ignored the idea of any immediate threat from the al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden. Bush was obsessed with Iraq, which had nothing to do with the World Trade Center attack.
Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, bought the rights for $600,000. Clarke wrote three drafts over the summer and into the fall. Then a fourth draft, finished in November, was readable.
The White House took months for a security clearance. In January 2004, they asked for some changes. Then on Feb. 4, 2004, the book was given clearance.
The publisher worked as fast as possible to get the first printing of 300,000 out.
The book is out a day and there are furious attacks from the White House. They said the book was timed for the election. If they had read it faster it would have been gone by now. How could they be so upset? All Clarke said was that Bush and his administration missed the World Trade Center attack.
Clarke said that Bush went into Iraq to get Saddam Hussein. And he kept saying that was the man who tried to kill Bush's dad. They ignored Afghanistan, where bin Laden was, giving bin Laden the chance to settle into some rock garden and do his voice-overs. And our 20-year-olds get killed in Iraq, where there they have no reason to be.
The attacks on Clarke went on. On Friday, Frist of Tennessee, the Senate Republican majority leader, said he wanted to get Clarke for perjury at a congressional committee hearing.
He described Clarke as a "former State Department civil servant." He used the word lie at least six times. Like Clarke or not, he has a record of serving his government at its highest levels and most dangerous moments. Frist has turned his medical profession into that of a cheap shill. But if he cries perjury, then there should be a trial of Clarke for perjury. He'll show. Frist might not like it.
A transcript reader said yesterday, "Everything Clarke said is in the transcript and the book and the testimony he gave at the 9/11 hearing on Wednesday. It looks like the guy is right. That's why they're screaming."
Clarke writes and testifies that when he told Condoleezza Rice how dangerous al-Qaida was, she answered that his office staff was too large. She said that Clarke's position should be downgraded. He would have meetings with deputies and nobody higher. And months went by and nothing was done about bin Laden.
Sitting with his book and listening to him at the hearing in Washington on Wednesday, I could hear stories I heard about Rice in the past. Condoleezza Rice always is introduced as a former provost of Stanford University. You can't get anything to sound much better. Provost! She must be in charge of science you can't even imagine. Ancient literature. Anything ancient. If it is impossible to understand, she knows it.
It turns that as provost she was in charge of assigning lecture halls. If they were for decent right wing visiting lecturers, they were given good halls. A liberal had to speak with one foot in the bay. A Stanford scientist brought out Paul Glimscher from NYU to lecture. Rice found him to be a dastardly New York liberal and they couldn't get a place for three days.
She is now in the White House squalling that Clarke is a liar. If she knows anything about history, she might recognize Clarke as the new Whitaker Chambers. You could look it up.
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