Lack of curiosity keeps Bush in the dark

? In her testimony before the 9-11 commission on Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice gave glimpses of the inner workings of the Bush White House that were extraordinarily revealing for this highly secretive administration.

Anyone who listened closely to her three hours on the stand could glean much about the strengths and weaknesses of this White House, a place where few outsiders have gained much of a clue about how it really operates.

What emerged was a picture of an organization with great discipline and a strong belief in orderly structures and clearly articulated concepts and policies. But it is also a top-down bureaucracy, with little capacity for hearing variant viewpoints or testing its theories against the practical wisdom of front-line operatives.

Rice was at her most impressive in outlining the steps the Bush team took when it inherited a faltering anti-terrorism campaign from its predecessors in the Clinton administration. For the sake of continuity in day-to-day operations, it carried over the team that had been at work under the now-famous Richard Clarke. But it also soon launched its own structured effort to devise a more aggressive long-term strategy for countering and if possible eliminating the threat from al-Qaida and similar organizations.

The strategic planning was delegated — following Bush’s preferred corporate model — to a team of second-level operatives, given only the general guidance that the new president wanted not a series of limited counterstrokes, but a design that would vanquish this hidden enemy.

The Bush administration has denounced Clarke for saying that countering terrorism was not an “urgent” priority for it before 9-11. But when former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington asked Rice if “you and the administration simply believed that you had more time to meet this challenge of al-Qaida than was in fact the case,” she replied: “It is true that we understood that to meet this challenge it was going to take time. It was a multiyear program to try and meet the challenge of al-Qaida.” Staff work on the strategy was completed one week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it did not reach the president until after the event.

Meantime, the air was full of warnings throughout the summer of 2001, and that is where the top-down, insulated Bush managerial style really came up short. Someone — presumably Rice herself — decided that the threat response should be coordinated by Clarke’s interagency group, not by the Cabinet officers or the president himself. Orders supposedly went out to the relevant agencies.

But as Jamie Gorelick, a Democratic commission member, pointed out, the secretary of transportation and the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said they never heard of the threats. What is worse, as Gorelick and former Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana documented, there is no evidence that the FBI ever followed through on the instruction to alert its field offices to step up the hunt for domestic terrorists.

No one knows whether any of these missing steps could have prevented 9-11. But the clear impression left so far is that the president was blissfully unaware that the steps that had been ordered by his second-team coordinators had not been carried out.

Rice insisted that it was unfair to say the top officials were not engaged. When Roemer asked why she had never let Clarke, the in-house anti-terrorism expert, brief the president himself, she replied, “Well, the president was meeting with his director of central intelligence.” Clarke would have been brought in, she said, when the slowly developing new strategy was ready for the president’s eyes.

All in good time.

What is missing from the story, as it has emerged so far, is any sense that Bush himself was reaching down below the top levels of the White House staff or the intelligence agencies, trying to inform himself of what was happening down in the trenches. It is an open secret in Washington that he is indifferent to much of the daily work of the domestic departments. But it is striking that he seems equally passive on matters of national security, letting information in that area, too, filter up to him through the White House bureaucracy.

John Kennedy was famous in his time for picking up the phone and asking desk officers deep in the State Department or smart congressional staffers what they knew about something of interest to him. Kennedy was a journalist at heart, not, like Bush, a Harvard Business School grad. That kind of curiosity is as important to the presidency as the best-organized staff system.

– David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.