"Extremely serious questions" about Condi

Published February 14, 2005 4:18PM (EST)

Suspicious delay of a report whose contents cast a suspicious light on a Cabinet official's congressional testimony -- probably not the ideal calling card for kicking off one's career as Secretary of State. But as we noted recently, there's reason to believe that Condoleezza Rice didn't play it straight when testifying about knowledge the Bush administration may have had regarding the threat of terrorist hijackings in the months before 9/11.

Congressional watchdog Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is now calling for hearings to investigate "extremely serious questions" raised by the late-January release of a previously undisclosed section of the 9/11 commission report. In a letter to the chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, Waxman lays out the apparent case against Condi.

"The first question Committee hearings should address is whether the Bush Administration abused the classification process to improperly withhold the 9/11 Commission findings from Congress and the public until after the November elections and the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Although the 9/11 Commission staff completed its report on August 26, 2004, the Bush Administration refused to declassify the findings until January 28, 2005, less than 48 hours after Ms. Rice was confirmed as Secretary of State.

"The Committee should also examine the process by which Ms. Rice investigated and researched intelligence reports regarding airline suicide attacks prior to making public statements regarding this issue, testifying before the 9/11 Commission on April 8, 2004, and advising President Bush. During her tenure as President Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice made several categorical statements asserting that there were never any warnings that terrorists might use airplanes in suicide attacks."

Waxman notes that those statements were quite at odds with the 52 intelligence reports put out by the security branch of the FAA between April and Sept. 10, 2001 -- half of all the agency's intelligence summaries in that time period -- that made reference to Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida. According to the freshly disclosed section of the 9/11 report, the FAA, while more focused on overseas threats, warned airports in the spring of 2001 that if "the intent of the hijacker is not to exchange hostages for prisoners, but to commit suicide in a spectacular explosion, a domestic hijacking would probably be preferable."

And while the FAA was an organizational fiasco all its own, that doesn't make Rice any less culpable, says Waxman:

"One possibility raised by these facts is that Ms. Rice was unaware of the FAA warnings when she appeared before the press and testified before the 9/11 Commission. This would raise serious questions about her preparation and competency. Another possibility is that Ms. Rice knew about the FAA warnings but provided misleading information to the public and the Commission. Neither of these possibilities would reflect well on Ms. Rice."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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