Sean Wilentz: Condi Rice, (Bad) Historian
Sean Wilentz, in Salon (April 13, 2004):
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....
Rice, and apparently President Bush, read historical documents like this one very differently.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.
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