Tough Questions For Condi Rice

Condoleezza Rice has told everyone willing to listen that she wishes for nothing more than the opportunity to testify in public before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. (The President’s national security adviser didn’t say whether she was eager to subject herself to the penalties of perjury, as the co-chairmen of the 9/11 commission insisted.) Now the White House has announced that her desire to testify will be satisfied in the near future, and that she will indeed be sworn.

Until now, Ms. Rice had accepted the President’s decision-however reluctantly and despite her personal yearning for candor-that she would be deprived of the chance to testify before the commission. Nothing less than the Constitution itself was at risk, in the opinion of the White House counsel. “I would certainly hope that everyone understands that this long-standing separation between the President’s closest personal advisers and the Congress has to be maintained,” she lamented on March 28 on television.

How could she have known that this essential Constitutional barrier would suddenly disappear less than 48 hours later? Such magical lawyering is likely to annoy the frustrated members of the 9/11 commission, who have been treated with contempt by the White House. One of those frustrated commissioners might even ask Ms. Rice about the Oval Office discussions that preceded the President’s turnaround on her testimony. Was President Bush influenced by the increasing political pressure to let her testify? Did an internal poll set Karl Rove’s hair on fire?

Those would be small-minded, mean-spirited, gotcha-type questions, which the commissioners must try to resist more successfully than a couple of them did when Richard A. Clarke testified. There are plenty of substantive questions they should put to Ms. Rice.

They can inquire about the prejudices of the incoming Bush administration, whose policy direction was set by Ms. Rice and other advisers who came to be known collectively as “the Vulcans.” In Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, author James Mann explains that for Ms. Rice and the rest of Dubya’s brain trust, the primary concerns were missile defense, China, Russia, Iraq and North Korea. “Ironically,” writes Mr. Mann, a fellow at the impeccably conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, “despite the Vulcans’ preoccupation with these new dangers, they rarely dwelt upon the one threat that would eventually change their lives and those of the rest of America, terrorism.”

The commissioners may ask Ms. Rice why she and her colleagues didn’t act on plans to attack Al Qaeda, presented to her by Richard Clarke on Jan. 25, 2001, until almost nine months later. Why did she and her colleagues junk the recommendations of the Hart-Rudman commission on homeland security? The Hart-Rudman report underlined prescient warnings by former President Bill Clinton, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger-and by Mr. Clarke, who remained as the new administration’s counterterrorism chief. And assuming that she indeed considered terrorism an “urgent” issue, how would she justify the strange demotion of Mr. Clarke from cabinet status? He was, after all, the only ranking official in the Bush White House who knew anything about the subject.

They can ask whether Ms. Rice approved the President’s decision to appoint Vice President Dick Cheney as chairman of a task force to examine the possibility of a terror attack on American soil. Why did that task force never convene even once after that announcement on May 8, 2001? (Perhaps they will also ask Mr. Cheney himself to answer that question, when he and the President meet with the commission in closed session.)

No doubt Ms. Rice still recalls the “summer of threat,” those months preceding September 2001 when Mr. Clarke and C.I.A. director George Tenet tried to convey the danger they were hearing in the terrorist “chatter” picked up by our intelligence services. According to Mr. Clarke, those signals “exceeded anything that George Tenet or I had ever seen.”

The commissioners might ask Ms. Rice-who has claimed that she and her Bush colleagues were at “battle stations”-whether she ever learned of the daily cabinet meetings that preceded Dec. 31, 1999, at the Clinton White House. Was she aware that Mr. Clarke and others believed those top-level conclaves shook loose the information that thwarted the millennium terror plots? Does she regret her failure to convene such meetings in August 2001?

If she truly understood the imminence of danger during that summer, perhaps she will explain why the President never got the message. He told reporter Bob Woodward, author of Bush at War , that he had felt little sense of urgency about Al Qaeda while he vacationed in Crawford, Tex., before Sept. 11.

And one more question: Will she endorse Mr. Clarke’s request to declassify all of the e-mail correspondence between him and her during 2001?