"God help us if we have another attack"

As Condoleezza Rice lectures Europeans about the war on terror, the 9/11 Commission raises some questions back home.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 5, 2005 4:40PM (EST)

Just before she boarded a plane for Europe this morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to put a lid on complaints she's going to hear there about the U.S. practice of rendition and reports that the CIA is operating a network of secret prisons overseas. She defended Bush administration policies, and she issued a sort of warning for leaders who might not stay in line. Invoking the threat of another 9/11, Rice said: "I know what it is like to face an inquiry into whether everything was done that could be done."

Rice's warning raises a couple of questions here. First, is it too much to ask that government officials -- in the United States or in Europe -- do their best to prevent a terrorist attack because they want to prevent a terrorist attack, and not because they fear the investigation that might follow if they don't? OK, don't answer that. By framing her warning the way she did, Rice makes it pretty clear at least what motivates her.

But the bigger question is this: As Rice goes around hinting that European officials aren't doing their part to prevent another attack, are Rice and her colleagues back home doing everything they can themselves? The answer to that question is a resounding no, say the members of the 9/11 Commission.

In a report released today, the 10 members of the commission say the federal government deserves "more F's than A's" for its responses to the 9/11 Commission's recommendations so far. "People are not paying attention," Thomas Kean, the Republican who served as the commission's chairman, said over the weekend. "God help us if we have another attack." During a joint appearance Sunday on "Meet the Press," Kean's Democratic vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, said: "There are so many competing priorities. We've got three wars going on: one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq and the war against terror. And it's awfully hard to keep people focused on something like this."

As the Associated Press reports, the commissioners are giving the government a grade of "F" on efforts to focus homeland security money on cities most at risk, on improving radio communications for emergency workers and on prescreening airline passengers.

In announcing the grades today, Kean said that the 9/11 commission and "every responsible expert that we have talked to" believe that terrorists will attempt to strike the United States again. "If they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?" he asked.

As Rice settles in for her flight to Europe, it's a question she might want to ask herself.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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