Condoleezza Rice, a woman of unfailing intensity and focus, is one of the engines hauling along the war on terror. She was in the White House on Sept. 11 and, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, helped navigate the country during the president's absence. She subsequently guided the Afghan and Iraqi wars. Along the way, Rice endeared herself to Americans as a woman who worked her way up from humble Southern origins to become one of the most powerful women in America - and perhaps the world. If Bush is elected to a second term, there are whispers that she could supplant Colin Powell as secretary of state. Others are buzzing that she will run for governor of California in 2006. Surely that would be regarded as a stepping stone to the presidency. For this, her approval has always been assured.
Sixteen words uttered by Bush during his Jan. 28 State of the Union address have unkindly affixed themselves to Rice's reputation. During that speech, Bush cited British intelligence indicating Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase uranium from Africa. The obvious implication being that Hussein was reconstructing his nuclear program. The accusation provided the first, clear rationale for preemptively attacking the Iraqi dictator.
Just one thing. The information was bogus. CIA chief George Tenet knew this. In fact, he sent a memo to Rice's chief deputy, Stephen Hadley, questioning the voracity of the British intelligence. Still, the accusation made it into the president's address, raising questions as to whether Rice ignored Tenet's warnings in order to bolster the case for war.
The scent of a full-blown scandal has been wafting around Rice ever since. As national security adviser, she's the president's primary adviser and confidante. It is ultimately her responsibility to make sure that the president is providing the American public with accurate security and foreign affairs information. This is particularly true of the State of the Union address that announced to the world that America intended to pursue a bold new policy of preemptive strikes against rogue and terrorist states.
Rice's failure to edit out questionable intelligence suggests incomplete and shoddy staff work at the highest levels of government. So much so, that the president communicated erroneous information to the public. That is alarming.
Some people have tried to explain away "those 16 words" as part of Rice's learning curve. "Condi came up through the diplomatic circles, she is more of an academic . than somebody who has been on front lines of intelligence and law enforcement," explained Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) to The Associated Press. "She had a learning curve," continued Goss, who also observed that Rice was only eight months on the job when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.
Sounds rational. But Rice was not being asked to decipher complex intelligence. The CIA had already done that. As one administration official told me, "this is basic, basic stuff." Rice said as much herself during a recent appearance on "News Hour with Jim Lehrer," when she flatly accepted "personal responsibility for this entire episode."
This is serious. In a democracy, the president derives his legitimacy from the public. Erode that trust and the president's authority will slip away like water through open fingers. That said, those 16 words were not fatal. The fact remains that Saddam maintained an active weapons program. On this point there is wide consensus amongst international intelligence agencies.
It is well known that in 1991 Hussein was on the verge of acquiring nuclear capabilities. Throughout the '90s, he continued to stockpile biological and chemical weapons. Iraqi physicists have reported that Iraq has most of the critical components to create a nuclear weapon. According to German intelligence reports, Iraq would be nuclear by 2005. Our own intelligence estimated that Iraq would acquire a nuclear weapon by the end of the decade, perhaps sooner if Hussein acquired fission material. This would present the doomsday scenario - Saddam possessing the nuclear, biological, chemical capacity and money to attack the West. In effect, Iraq becomes the engine of terrorism that further destabilizes the Middle East and fuels the hatred of people intent on destroying America. "Was that a threat that you could allow to sit unanswered?" asked Rice on "News Hour." "The answer is no."
Rice, a woman with uncommon access to strength and intelligence, did not quiver. And the world is safer now because of her leadership. The 16 words the president uttered remain a true exposition of the British government's position. It is regrettable that the president used it when our own intelligence thought it was suspect. But as articulated, it is a true statement.
Scrutiny is an appropriate response. But the fact remains that Rice did not lie and her actions have made the world safer. Armed with little else with which to assault Rice, her enemies have latched onto those 16 words to bloody her reputation.
One longs for the days when you had to actually lie to have your integrity impugned.