Don’t know much about history

Condoleezza Rice dismissed the Aug. 6 PDB that warned of al-Qaida attacks against the U.S. as "historical." She was dead wrong -- and as a historian herself, she has no excuse.

Topics:

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice is a professional historian and political scientist. And so it was especially noteworthy when she testified under oath last week that the famous president’s daily brief on al-Qaida from Aug. 6, 2001, contained “historical information based on old reporting” that did not warn of new attacks against the United States. If anyone in the White House should know the difference between “historical” and non-historical information, and its importance, it ought to be Rice, the former provost of Stanford University.

It turns out that Rice’s testimony was misleading and possibly false. The PDB — subsequently declassified after intense public pressure — certainly contains then-current information based on continuing investigations. It specifically refers to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”

Rice’s mischaracterization seems to have been overlooked or forgiven by the press corps. To a citizen, this is shocking. But to a historian, Rice’s conception of “history” and “historical information” is equally so.

What is a historical document? At the most simple-minded level, it is something that contains information about past events. To a historian, it is much more than that. It also contains clues about what may or may not have happened after the document was created. Those clues require interpretation, in conjunction with other historical documents. The document, in a historian’s hands, talks about much more than the events it describes or the person who was describing it. It is part of a chain of evidence that goes into making reasoned judgments about earlier and later events as well.

Read this way, the Aug. 6 PDB is a fascinating and alarming historical document. It states:

  • For the previous four years, Osama bin Laden had stated repeatedly that he wanted to follow up the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and “bring the fighting to America.”
  • One of the American targets that bin Laden had specified was Washington, D.C.
  • Bin Laden was personally aware of the failed millennium bombing plot of 1999 that targeted Los Angeles — an operation encouraged and facilitated by one of his top al-Qaida lieutenants.


  • As of Aug. 6, 2001, al-Qaida “apparently” maintained within the United States “a support structure that could aid attacks.”
  • Bin Laden “prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks.”
  • There was, on Aug. 6, 2001, current information that suggested al-Qaida was preparing for “hijackings or other kinds of attacks” in the United States, with New York buildings a possible target.
  • The FBI was engaged in over 70 investigations related to bin Laden, including an intelligence tip-off from three months earlier “saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
  • The information here is straightforward: Bin Laden has threatened to attack the United States, specifically Washington; he has been implicated in earlier attack plots against the United States; he bides his time; there are reports that his agents are currently in the United States planning hijackings or attacks with explosives. But put all of that together with the generalized but frightening intelligence “chatter” reported to Rice over the summer of 2001 about an imminent huge attack by al-Qaida against the United States, and the message is clear: Something spectacularly bad was in the works on Aug. 6, 2001, that had to be taken seriously.

    Rice, and apparently President Bush, read historical documents like this one very differently. As she testified last week, the “historical information” of the PDB had little significance. The “history” was just old news, of no great importance. We’d known about bin Laden’s intentions for a long time. So what?

    To which a historian replies: So everything! The “historical information” contained in the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB took on entirely new meaning given what else was there and given the other intelligence flooding into Washington. It wasn’t just that bin Laden had made threats: He had tried to carry out those threats and was apparently trying again, big time. Such was the situation at the time — not in 1997 or 1998, but on Aug. 6, 2001.

    Had Rice put her historical training to use, she would have seen this — and, one hopes, counseled the president that something more than passivity was required. But she didn’t. Perhaps she is not so sound a historian after all. (The American Historical Review’s notice of her first book, a study of Russia and the Czech army after 1948, charged that Rice “frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation” and that she “passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts.”) Or perhaps she decided to put aside her historian’s skills in service to the president.

    When questioned after his election about the more sordid features of his 1988 “Willie Horton” campaign, the elder President George H.W. Bush dismissed critics with a breezy remark: “That’s history.” A similar disregard for the actual significance of history and “historical information” seems to have guided his son and his son’s top advisors in August 2001. And it seems to have guided the current national security advisor in her misleading testimony last week. More than anyone else in the White House, she should have known better. The scary thing is that maybe she does.

    Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton University

    More Related Stories

    Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 14
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

      One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

      In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

      Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

      We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

      On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

      Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

      The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

      Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

      While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

      As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

      Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

      Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

      13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

      Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

      There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

    • Recent Slide Shows

    Comments

    0 Comments

    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>