“By no means did he ask me to act on a plan….I don’t remember the al Qaeda cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about….The responsibility for the FBI to do what it was asked was the FBI’s responsibility…..If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something or that Andy Card needed to do something, I would have been expected to be asked to do it….There is no mention or recommendation of anything that needs to be done about them.”

This is courtesy of Garance Franke-Ruta at Tapped, who nicely sums up the consensus about Rice’s performance: she claimed that she took the threat of terrorism very seriously indeed, but to explain her inaction in the face of such a serious threat she was forced to paint a picture of herself as someone who just passively waited around for other people to make recommendations. As Fred Kaplan puts it in Slate:

Why did she need a recommendation to do something? Couldn’t she make recommendations herself? Wasn’t that her job? Given the huge spike of traffic about a possible attack (several officials have used the phrase “hair on fire” to describe the demeanor of those issuing the warnings), should she have been satisfied with the lack of any sign that the FBI wasn’t tracking down the cells? Shouldn’t she have asked for positive evidence that it was tracking them down?

This comes out most clearly in this exchange from Rice’s testimony, in which she explains that the president had everyone at “battle stations” after the increase in chatter in July 2001:

RICE: He expected his Secretary of State to be locking down embassies. He expected his Secretary of Defense to be providing force protection. He expected his F.B.I. director to be tasking his agents and getting people out there. He expected his director of central intelligence to be out and doing what needed to be done in terms of disruption.

….GORELICK: I’d like to pick up where Fred Fielding and you left off….First of all while it may be that Dick Clarke was informing you, many of the other people at the C.S.G. level and the people who were brought to the table from the domestic agencies were not telling their principals. Secretary Mineta, the secretary of transportation, had no idea of the threat. The administrator of the F.A.A. responsible for security on our airlines had no idea. Yes, the attorney general was briefed, but there is no evidence of any activity by him about this.

You indicate in your statement that the F.B.I. tasked its field offices to find out what was going on out there. We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings, they were not asked to come to the table and shake those trees. S.A.C.’s, special agents in charge around the country, Miami in particular, no knowledge of this.

….RICE: These were people who had been together in numerous crises before, and it was their responsibility to develop plans for how to respond to a threat.

In other words, maybe Rice told everyone there was a problem, but she didn’t bother to shake up the bureaucracy and make sure that everyone was actually following up. She was just a passive observer who called meetings and then assumed everyone else would do their jobs.

Is this fair? Hard to say. But it’s pretty clearly the impression her testimony left. Whatever else comes out of this, Rice doesn’t come out of it looking very good.

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