Foreign Policy

One For the Team

Will Condoleezza Rice be the fall guy for 9/11?


It's virtually impossible to imagine National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's imminent testimony before the 9/11 commission without thinking of the so-brilliant-it-wasn't-cancelled-but-in-fact-ran-for-five-seasons '80s TV series, The Fall Guy.

The unacknowledged zenith of Lee Majors' positively Himalayan career, The Fall Guy was like something dreamed up by the brilliantly insane—or is that insanely brilliant?—novelist Philip K. Dick. Among other conceits, it featured a theme song sung by the very actor playing the show's eponymous hero (an incredulity-inducing feat matched in recent memory perhaps only by Linda Lavin's increasingly emotive and slurred renderings of the Alice theme or, in a slight variation on the idea, Grant Goodeve's tremulous warbling of the Eight Is Enough title tune). Majors, freshly dumped by Farrah Fawcett and on the downward slide from his Six Million Dollar Man days, played Colt Seavers, a stunt man cum bounty hunter (!) who solved crimes when not pulling off incredibly dangerous stunts on movie sets; it was a rare episode in which Majors didn't get his lights punched out repeatedly and break a bone or sustain serious contusions. The Fall Guy, song and series, was a tribute to "the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star."

And so it is with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who will almost certainly be taking all sorts of staged body blows for George W. Bush when she finally, reluctantly—no, enthusiastically—sits down in front of the independent commission investigating the 9/11 attacks. Surely the odds are at least even that she'll emerge from this process every bit as bloodied as Lee Majors got week after week on The Fall Guy. Given that President Bush first refused to let her testify—executive privilege and all that was at stake, you know—and then decided not only that she could testify but that he and Vice President Dick Cheney bizarrely would appear together before the commission, like some sort of cheap Sandler and Young imitation—well, it all sounds sort of like a setup to me: Condi as fall guy. I don't mean that in any sort of super-conspiratorial way; but Rice's job for most of her tenure has been to take out the trash for the Bush team, and the bags have been piling up of late.

To be sure, Rice, like the administration of which she is a part, is at some level on the receiving end of the bitch slap of history. The simple truth is that no one, not even Against All Enemies author Richard A. Clarke, saw the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon coming in any sort of detail. But Rice seems the most likely to play the patsy in these particular proceedings. Indeed, the recent Washington Post report on her never-delivered September 11, 2001 speech stokes such a sense. She was, says the Post, poised to deliver a major address about what has since come to be known as "homeland security." Her main focus? Missile defense, that never-realized, almost-quaint Cold War vaporware project that may well have been instrumental in bankrupting the Soviet Union and, hence, ending the major ideological struggle of the second half of the 20th century.

"We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway," Rice was slated to say, according to excerpts published in the Post. "[But] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?" As the Post's Robin Wright notes, "The text of Rice's Sept. 11 speech, which was never delivered, broadly reflects Bush administration foreign policy pronouncements during the eight months leading to the attacks, according to a review of speeches, news conferences and media appearances. Although the administration did address terrorism, it devoted far more attention to pushing missile defense."

To be fair, the immediate context of Rice's planned speech is important. As Tech Central Station's Nick Schulz writes, Rice's speech was to come one day after Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) had devoted a speech of his own to attacking missile defense—something he and other Democrats had been doing for more than a decade. Schulz points out that Biden, ike Rice, "mentioned terrorism but made no mention of 'al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups.'… Moreover, to the extent that Biden mentioned terrorism, he, too, mentioned it in the context of dangers from rogue states, such as Iraq, that might resort to terror against Americans. Biden even spoke of 'Saddam Hussein, the certifiable maniac.'"

Schulz legitimately concludes, "Despite the historical whitewash now painted by Bush critics like [former counterterrorism czar] Richard Clarke, it's far from obvious that stateless Islamic terror was the focal point of Democratic defense policy mavens before September 2001." Indeed, in his book, Clarke himself implicates the Clinton administration in which he served for failing to respond more meaningfully to the "staccato drumroll" of nearly a dozen terrorist attacks on U.S. targets.

All of that may be true, but it will surely be beside the point when Rice sits down in front of the commission to answer questions about the Bush administration's pre-9/11 policy. It will be even more beside the point if, as some reports are claiming, the Bush administration works to delay the commission's report until after the November elections. (There are legitimate—and illegitimate—reasons for such a delay; which ones might be in play—and how they are perceived by the American public—will be anybody's guess.)

But this much is likely: At some point, rightly or wrongly, the public is going to want an American scalp for letting 9/11 happen. On Meet the Press this past Sunday, Tim Russert asked the head of the panel, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, whether anyone at any level had been fired or dismissed as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Kean answered that, to his knowledge, no one had. If the commission hearings incite the demand that someone in the current administration pay—and that's one of the functions such hearings serve, especially in election years—it will almost certainly be Rice who takes the fall.