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What is a historical document?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 Those clues require interpretation, in conjunction with other historical documents.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Read this way, the Aug. 6 PDB is a fascinating and alarming historical document.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 11
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
      Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
      Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Here by Richard McGuire
      A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
      The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
      This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
      For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Over Easy by Mimi Pond
      When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
      You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Shoplifter by Michael Cho
      Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

      Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

      Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
      This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

    • 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>