Once or twice in every generation, America gets the opportunity to examine closely how national security policy is orchestrated within the executive branch of our government: the various hearings in the aftermath of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, Watergate in the early 1970s, the Iran contra hearings in the 1980s and now the hearings before the Sept. 11 commission.
Today, when Condoleezza Rice is questioned under oath, the whole world will be watching. I strongly recommend that everyone watch the interaction, which will start at 9 a.m.
For those who cannot watch, I suggest that you tape the session and watch it later. For those who have the time, I suggest reading the following new books. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Steve Coll; The Man who Warned America: The Life and Death of John O'Neill, the FBI's Embattled Counterterror Warrior, by Murray Weiss; The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, by James Mann; and Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terrorism, by Richard Clarke. Although the Clarke book is quite partisan, his arguments will clearly be in the forefront of the national debate during the long run-up to the national election in November.
ONE OF THE issues which will be probed at length today will be why the Bush administration took so long to develop a strategy to deal with the huge threat that al-Qaida posed to the world. Having served in a number of positions in the Pentagon, and having written a book on how that complex bureaucracy works, I am reminded again of two fundamental realities:
1. The number of complex international issues our nation must face and how crisis after crisis after crisis tends to weaken our ability to plan and act strategically. I remember, when I was the staff officer in charge of Air Force plans and policy, I was expected to provide expert advice on short notice on at least a thousand issues involving more than a hundred nations.
2. The difficulty of the transition process from one administration to the next. Because of uncertainties about who would be our next president in November and December 2000, the Bush administration got a late start in the transition process. Also, because of the long delays in getting key officials confirmed by the Senate, there really wasn't a national security team in place until the early summer of 2001. Terrorism was an important issue facing the administration, but there were many other important issues to be faced by all of the top officials in the new administration.
I AM REMINDED of my time when I worked in the office of the secretary of defense. All day long, officials would walk into the office of the secretary and deputy secretary of defense with their "hair on fire," absolutely convinced that the issue they were raising was the most important issue facing the nation. These were dedicated, hard-working people and the issues that they raised were always important ones, but the secretary of defense, no matter how smart or hard-working, had to set some priorities and emphasize some issues more than others.
I also had the opportunity to read highly classified material coming out of our intelligence agencies, and every day, without exception, there were dozens of areas in the world where a crisis was under way that needed the attention of our government. Hence, when our government falls short in areas relating to intelligence, foreign policy and defense policy, I am not surprised - these top jobs are really, really tough, and pulling out the solid intelligence from the noise of too much information, which is often conflicting, is not an easy task.
FINALLY, IF I may relate a personal story from the distant past: As a boy of 7, I made my first speech. It was before my second-grade class in St. Cloud, Minn. - the year was 1942. I had witnessed firsthand the attack on Pearl Harbor a few months earlier, and I had been asked by my teacher to tell my fellow pupils what happened to me that day. After my short speech, I was asked a question that was being asked throughout America in those days. "Was it President Roosevelt's fault?"
My answer was simple, "No, I think it was the Japanese's fault." I think it is useful to remind ourselves that it was al-Qaida that attacked us Sept. 11, and that the mission of the commission is to be helpful in preventing it from happening again.
(Editor's note: Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith lives in Augusta. He is the author of six books, including Assignment Pentagon and A Hero Among Heroes. Recently he assisted in the editing of Medal of Honor, by Peter Collier, a best-selling book highlighting the remarkable lives of our living recipients of the Medal of Honor.)
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