Condoleezza Rice Outlines Administration’s Reaction to 9/11 Commission Report
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: Condoleezza Rice, welcome.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for doing this.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Nice to be with you.
MARGARET WARNER: The 9/11 commission report today said, as I know you know, that the most important failure was one of imagination, and they said that though most of them officially said, oh, we understood the danger, here’s what they said, they said, we do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat.
Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think it’s a completely fair assessment. As a matter of fact, I’ve used those very words myself, that, I think before Sept. 11, given that there had not been a major attack on the American mainland for 200 years really, we just didn’t see that it could happen in quite that way.
The country really wasn’t on war footing. We talked from time to time about war and terrorism and the war against them, but the truth is they were at war against us. We were not yet at war against them.
MARGARET WARNER: So when the commission says, for instance, that fighting terrorism is not the overriding national security concern for either the Clinton or Bush administrations, do you consider that entirely accurate?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would put it a little differently. I think that both in the Clinton administration and in our administration in that first eight months this was a very, very high priority. Everybody knew that the terrorist threat was a very real one and one that could come at any time.
But when you looked at the intelligence, it almost always pointed to something that was going to happen abroad, and so you didn’t think about the terrorist threat in the context of the homeland in quite the same way.
I think it’s also the case that the war against the terrorist was not an organizing principle of our foreign policy.
When you look at it now, we really have now alliances that think about terrorism as the number one threat. I think for a while we were sort of fishing around what was going to be the organizing principle, and now you know that it is terrorism; it’s weapons of mass destruction; and it’s the potential linkage between those two.
And when I sit down now to talk to counterparts or to talk to foreign ministers or the president talks to, to heads of state, terrorism is always on the agenda.
MARGARET WARNER: You talked about not recognizing the homeland being in danger and one thing that the commission found was that, for instance, the Department of Defense, they said, fully engaged – never fully engaged in the mission of countering al-Qaida, even though it arguably was the greatest threat. You would agree with that?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think that the Department of Defense, because of the way that our country had functioned for all of those years thought principally about defending abroad. One of the examples of this was that we had commands for every piece of geography in the world but not for the United States.
Now — there was a European command; there was a central command for the Middle East; there was a south command for Latin America; but there was no command for the United States.
And now of course we do have a northern command for the United States. So I think it’s just indicative of the fact that we didn’t think about the major attack on our homeland in quite the same way.
I remember that President Bush gave a speech on defense transformation, and he did talk about vulnerabilities of the homeland; he was concerned about, for instance, missile defense and how we would defend the homeland.
But after Sept. 11, I think we all had a very different picture of what we might need when we talked about an attack on the homeland.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, now many people point, for instance, to the emphasis on missile defense as an example of the incoming Bush administration being focused really on the wrong security threat.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, it’s still a security threat. It’s the – the threat of the proliferation of long range missiles. And, by the way, missile defense is something that has very, very long lead time.
So if you’re going to get started on the technologies to one day be able to knock down long range missiles which are proliferating unfortunately around the world, you have to get started on that.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a somewhat personal question, and it’s something that Governor Kean said today. He said, though there’s no single individual who’s responsible for the failure, and they didn’t try to fault find, as you know, he said, yet individuals and institutions can’t be absolved of the responsibility. And he said, “Any person in a senior position within our government during this time bears some element of responsibility for what happened.”
Do you feel personally that you bear some responsibility?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, of course. We all, I think all of us who had anything to do with national security over the period of time in which this threat grew, which is – by the way – not just the 90s; we tend to think about 1993 and the World Trade Center bombing and al-Qaida, but I’ve heard former Secretary of State George Shultz give a very impressive speech about how he thinks about how they might have differently thought about the Marine barracks bombing in 1982 in Lebanon, or how we might have thought about a follow-on, a series of terrorist attacks against us that clearly showed that this was building up, and it’s very often the case for democracies – and I made this point to the commission – that we don’t see a threat materialize until it’s already too late.
You can look at the way that the European democracies allowed Adolf Hitler step by step to increase his power in Europe before finally responding after the invasion of Poland.
I think the one thing that Sept. 11 has taught us is to not let threats materialize or fully materialize that you have to take care of them as they’re gathering, not when you finally have an attack as a result of them.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s move on to the recommendations because the commission is calling for a dramatic reorganization of the intelligence community, and before we get into specifics, does the president agree with that, that something really dramatic is needed here?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, Margaret, I don’t want to qualify it with a particular adjective, but I will say this: It’s not a matter of will there be intelligence reform; there’s going to be intelligence reform; and we’ve done a lot already.
I think that some of the things that the commission recognizes, like the threat terrorist information center that now does provide a place where all of those dots can be connected from the FBI, from the CIA, from the – from the Homeland Security – they talk about what we’ve been able to-we are doing a great deal but I don’t think anybody believes we’ve done enough.
And we now have to have I think as a country executive and legislative branches, a pretty intensive conversation about what these structures are going to look at; this would be pretty fundamental, I think.
MARGARET WARNER: So, for instance, do you have a view yet on their proposal for a national intelligence director, who will collect essentially – that would have budgetary and all authority over all these 15 different agencies that now have a hand in intelligence?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, it’s certainly an interesting idea, and I think one that has been around we need to look at and we need to look of course at the implications of any such fundamental change, but I – I think that that is what needs to be done now. And it needs to be done in a way that is attentive to the need to get it done, but also attentive to how fundamental some of these changes could be.
This is a period in which the United States Government is undergoing the most fundamental reorganization since 1947, the creation of the Homeland Security Department now talking about major intelligence reform. That, to my mind, is a good thing, because you can’t have something like Sept. 11 happen and not have institutional reform.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the president ready and willing to take on members of Congress, leaders in Congress? Including some in his own party? Is the president willing to take on this and a lot of institutional resistance to change, as you well know?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: There is institutional resistance to change. I think the president isn’t ready to comment on any specific recommendation, like an ID or some of the things that are there.
But certainly he said from the very beginning when this began to come out that he believed that further intelligence reform is going to be necessary, and yes, I think there are going to be some bureaucratic difficulties ahead. There always are when you have institutional reform.
The president wants to be measured and careful about it because we’re talking about fundamental issues here. It’s going to require the Congress to be involved; some of the report deals with the reorganization of congressional oversight, which is also a very important part of this.
So the president wants to be responsible and – and measured about it, but he also understands that there’s going to probably be more institutional reform, and that’s a good thing.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the commissioners this morning were expressing all a great sense of urgency about this, and for instance, Commissioner Thompson, I believe it was said, you know, while these recommendations are sitting there, if there’s another attack, the American public is going to want to know why action wasn’t taken.
How urgently does the president – do you and the president feel the need to move? For instance, are there things that you could do by executive action before the election?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, quite a bit has already been done, and I think we – we do have to recognize that some of the problems that were cited, the lack of sharing of information, for instance, are and have been addressed. The very fact that you have a Homeland Security Department means that people are paying attention to vulnerabilities inside the country in a way that we were not on Sept. 10.
So we shouldn’t fall into the trap that it’s either do everything that’s in the recommendations or do nothing. Many things have already been done.
I do think that the president understands that of course when you decide that you want further intelligence reform, you need to get on with it. I don’t think we’re talking about forever here, but I do think we are talking about a process that allows these recommendations to be looked at by the president and his advisers, talked about, examined for both upsides and downsides, and then to move forward.
MARGARET WARNER: But you spoke about things that have already been done, but the tone of the press conference this morning was that the commissioners have also taken a snapshot of the way the government is organized now, and Lee Hamilton said, all too often we had trouble answering the question who was in charge.
And then Commissioner Gorelick added, when we’d ask that question, we were often told, well, the president is, and she said, that can’t be his full-time job. And she said the authority for a kind of coherent, cohesive response still does not exist, or words to that effect.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think the authority for a cohesive response, in fact, does, and you have responsible cabinet secretaries; that is never going to rest in one person because you have to have, as we’ve said, all elements of national power. And you do have a division of responsibilities in the cabinet secretaries who will always have responsibility.
But I think what you would find now that instead of having to go separately to each of the domestic agencies that would have some role in homeland defense, the president would go to Tom Ridge and say, Tom, what are we doing about this and that Tom Ridge would be a point person on something like that.
When it comes to intelligence, I do think that the director of central intelligence has been more on point for a broader range of intelligence issues than at the time of 9/11.
I would be the first to say, Margaret, the way that we do it now is that the president every morning meets with the FBI director, the CIA director, the DCI, the homeland security secretary, my counterpart for homeland security is there, usually the attorney general, yes, to a certain extent we’re doing it at the top. And that’s what institutional reform will eventually bring you is this coming down through the organizations.
But it’s also the case that this is not going to be easy and it won’t – won’t happen overnight. Institutional change doesn’t happen overnight.
The important thing is that we have begun that process, and we’re looking for ways to improve on it, to accelerate it, to change what needs to be changed about it, and I think the commission report has given us a very, very good look back at what went wrong. And I was impressed by the chapters that look forward. I think they did a remarkably good job.
MARGARET WARNER: Condoleezza Rice, thank you.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Nice to be with you.