Authority figure

Cal Thomas

4/12/2004 12:00:00 AM - Cal Thomas

She spoke with authority. That was my first impression of Dr. Condoleezza Rice as she faced the commission investigating how 9/11 happened and what might be done to prevent future attacks on American soil. Mere mortals would have melted during the three hours of sometimes-intense questioning, but Rice didn't even break a sweat. One might have thought she was engaging in after-dinner conversation and not the high drama that persuaded the three broadcast networks to interrupt the banalities they usually carry in the morning for something - and someone - of substance.

Rice kept reminding commission members, "I took an oath." In Washington, that can be as meaningful as a marriage vow, which not a few manage to break. To her, though, an oath has value. It is about the character of the one who takes it as well as the fear of the One to whom it is made. A serious Christian, Rice is not just taking an oath before men and women, but before God, to whom she believes she must give account.

Rice is a remarkable woman. In 1963, childhood friends of hers were murdered by white racists in the bombing of a Birmingham church. She might have joined the company of victims. But instead of just singing the African-American anthem, "We Shall Overcome Someday," she simply overcame.

That said, Rice's testimony did not reveal much new information. For many years, the FBI and CIA did not talk to each other, something Rice said was partially for legal reasons (separation of the CIA international intelligence-gathering "church" from the FBI domestic intelligence-gathering "state") and partially for bureaucratic ones. The Patriot Act and other post-9/11 reforms are supposed to have improved communication.

Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton was right when he said, "Policymakers face terrible dilemmas: information is incomplete; the inbox is huge; resources are limited; there are only so many hours in the day. The choices are tough, and none is tougher than deciding what is a priority and what is not."

There is something else. Until 9/11, too few members of the Clinton and Bush administrations and too few members of the public believed what the fanatics were saying in their public sermons, their newspaper editorials and actions. Americans have fallen for the fiction that all people are basically good and that everyone secretly longs for the same things. If all of the previous terror attacks did not convince American leaders and American citizens that evil cannot be accommodated, but must be defeated, 9/11 should have taught that cosmic lesson.

Rice made this point with a brief history lesson. She noted this country's failure to properly assess German intentions until two years after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. The United States did not enter the war until 1917. Apparently we learned nothing from history, so it was repeated when the Nazi regime regularly violated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Further provocations throughout the 1930s, she noted, did not provoke a response from the Western democracies, further emboldening Hitler. Only after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 did the West begin to act. It was the same with Japan, she said. Despite numerous signals of a growing threat, the United States failed to respond until Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.

More important than who saw what memos and when, or what intelligence was seen by whom and why it was not acted upon, is the war in which we are currently engaged. There is enough bipartisan blame to pass around. The question is, does blaming anyone prevent or reduce the likelihood of another attack? The answer is that it does not.

The terror cells are among us. They await opportunity and instruction. They must be located and destroyed.

"We are at war, and our security as a nation depends on winning that war," Rice told the commission. She ought to be believed, and if we do believe her, we had better make sure that those who mean us harm - whether in America or abroad - are eliminated before they strike again. That's what war is. Anything less is surrender. Rice made her case with great authority. Our future demands that we heed her.