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Storytelling In The News: #114

Dr. Condoleezza Rice's story and the issue of honesty

April 9, 2004

Dr. Condoleezza Rice's story as told to the 9/11 commission yesterday continued to reverberate around the world, and much attention is being given to the issue of honesty. Was it a fully honest account?

In an earlier page, we drew attention to two different senses of honesty,

* personal honesty i.e. telling the whole truth, including those elements that are perhaps less flattering to the person or supporting arguments they may be making;

* the more limited organizational sense of honesty of being "factually accurate as far as the statement goes," with the possibility, if not the probability, that elements less flattering to the organization or not supporting the organization's cause, are being suppressed or even distorted.

We noted that Richard Clarke's story as told when he was an employee of the White House and limited to an organizational sense of honesty differed markedly from the story he could tell when he felt free to tell the whole truth to the 9/11.

Condoleezza Rice: organizational honesty

According to the New York Times, Rice on April 8 fulfilled no more than the requirements of organizational honesty, by sticking to her script.

At every turn in her three hours of often contentious testimony, she stuck to the White House script: Everything that could have been done to prevent the attacks had been done. She was unwilling to acknowledge mistakes, apart from the institutional tensions that have long plagued the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a culture that made it impossible for a succession of administrations to see the threat unfolding in front of them.

But she was unwilling to acknowledge that the newly arrived Bush Administration was part of that problem, or that it, too, underestimated what it confronted or was distracted by other issues, from tax cuts to China to missile defense. Moreover, her tone — as controlled as her delivery at one of her Stanford seminars — left many panel members wondering if she was defending a position several of them have publicly said is indefensible.

The New York Times: the need for personal honesty

According to the New York Times, Rice mounted her defense vigorously, but in the hours after she returned to the White House, it was evident that she had not defused the arguments.

For viewers who have not been following the details of the argument, there was the lingering question of whether anyone in the Bush White House is capable of admitting error — a step many of Ms. Rice's current and former colleagues said would help calm the political waters.

"If Dr. Rice wanted to change some minds, she needed to come out and admit that the administration — like so many of its predecessors — had made mistakes in addressing international terrorism," said Ken Pollack, a former analyst at the national security council and C.I.A. and now a scholar at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. "Simply denying that this administration has underestimated the threat is unlikely to convince Americans who see the manifest failures of the United States government to address a systemic problem."

Similarly the Washington Post noted that "when the Washington investigative machinery gets rolling, it takes a major event to stop it. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice's defense of the Bush anti-terrorism effort at yesterday's hearing before the 9/11 commission was not enough.

The hearing helped to narrow the focus to this: What did President Bush and his senior advisers know in the summer of 2001 about a flurry of terrorist threats picked up by intelligence services, and what did they do about it?

The issue of possible inconsistencies

Organizational honesty requires that a person be as accurate at least as far one goes. Where the testimony is not even accurate as far as it goes, and turns out to be inconsistent with facts that the person giving the testimony must have known, then then it risks crossing over the line from merely organizational honesty into explicit dishonesty. Given the criminal penalties for dishonest testimony under oath, which have trapped White House officials in previous administrations (e.g. Haldemann, Poindexter), the stakes here for Rice and the White House are high.

Already polls showed erosion in support for Bush's Iraq policy. Only a third of those surveyed by CBS on April 9 said the war has been worth the cost, down from 4 in 10 a week earlier. Just 50 percent said going to war was the right decision, the lowest figure since the initial combat ended a year ago, with 46 percent saying the United States should have stayed out. The Time-CNN poll found 44 percent saying they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, compared with 51 percent in late March.

This document in question in the commission relates to President's Daily Brief, or PDB of August 6, 2001. Commissioners called on the White House to make the document public, and this is certain to keep the investigation in the headlines.

Rice, who conceded in her public testimony yesterday that the report was entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States," described the briefing as "a historical summary of suspected al Qaeda plots". Rice also said the document contained "no new threat information" and "did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States."

But in questioning during yesterday's hearing, several Democratic commissioners challenged Rice characterization of the briefing. They said it also included information about suspected al Qaeda cells in the United States and warnings about possible plans for domestic hijackings. On April 10, the Washington Post endorsed these questions, basing their article on "sources who have seen the document and a review of official accounts and media reports over the past two years."

The irresistible public urge to solve a mystery and finish the story

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has demanded that the 11/2-page document be declassified.

White House officials, after indicating Thursday that the briefing document could be declassified within a day, announced on April 9 that they were delaying any release until at least next week. "We are actively working on declassification and are not quite ready to put it out," said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He attributed the delay to "unprecedented activity" needed to prepare for public release the article from the Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief (PDB), the daily report of significant new intelligence and analysis provided the chief executive and his most senior national security advisers.

Bottom line

It is interesting to think that if Rice had given testimony two weeks ago, along with Cabinet officials and if the White House had released the August 6 2001 briefing as part of a routine disclosure of relevant material to the commission, it is possible that the matter would not have received much public attention.

But by aggressively resisting the request for Rice to give evidence for some weeks, the White House unwittingly accentuated the prominence to her testimony. Once the media spotlight was on her testimony, her every word was examined for possible inconsistencies. Thus the White House, by creating a sense of mystery surrounding the story, has ensured that the story would acquire a prominence that they never wished it to have.

Even though the initial response to the form of Rice's testimony was favorable, the intense scrutiny it is receiving ultimately leads on to an inquiry into its substance. The way in which Rice's story has come before the public has intensified attention which the story has received to date - and will receive in future.

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