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.

Published April 14, 2004 12:37AM (EDT)

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What is a historical document?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 Those clues require interpretation, in conjunction with other historical documents.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Read this way, the Aug. 6 PDB is a fascinating and alarming historical document.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

    By Sean Wilentz

    Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton University

    MORE FROM Sean Wilentz

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------