Why Condi Won't Apologize for 9/11

When President Bush's counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke apologized before the 9/11 Commission for his and the government's failure to thwart the September 11 terror attacks, the clamor arose for National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to also apologize. But Rice quickly scotched any notion that she would preface her testimony before the 9/11 Commission with an apology.

The lack of an apology is not due to insensitivity to the pain and trauma of the relatives of the September 11 victims. In speeches and interviews, Rice has repeatedly expressed personal sorrow over the 3000 deaths. Rice says she still vividly remembers the 1963 bomb explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four black girls. In a speech at Stanford University's graduation ceremony in 2002, she likened the racist terror bombing to the September 11 attack, and said that the horror of terrorism made a permanent imprint on her.

The reasons Rice didn't and probably won't apologize go beyond personal feelings and sympathies. Despite Clarke's testimony that dumped much of the blame for the Bush administration's gross failure to heed intelligence warnings of a pending attack at her footstep, Rice does not make Bush administration policy. Her role is to collect, interpret, and advise Bush on intelligence matters.

He, not Rice, decides on what action to take. If Bush, as he told Bob Woodward in his book, Bush at War, felt no sense of urgency about Osama Bin Laden then the blame for the 9/11 catastrophe lay with Bush, and an apology must come from him.

But that's not likely. Presidents rarely make apologies for their errors and wrongs, particularly if they occur on their watch. An official apology is a potential legal and political minefield. It assumes governmental responsibility and liability for errors and wrongs. But it also leaves an administration wide open to lawsuits, and demands for compensation by family members and relatives of the victims. There are glaring examples that make the government loathe to publicly apologize for wrong doing that involved the loss of hundreds even thousands of lives. The atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II is one. Despite much evidence that the bomb attack may not have been necessary to win the war, and repeated demands from peace activists and some government officials in Japan for an apology and compensation for the survivors, the government has refused to acknowledge any culpability for the carnage. U.S. officials also never apologized for any of the atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Vietnam, including the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of innocent civilians were killed, and despite the colossal failures, and intelligence lapses, immediately before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, government officials never offered any apologies.

President Clinton twice came the closest of any recent president to making an apology for historic wrongs. On a visit to Africa in 1998, he acknowledged that the United States was wrong to benefit from slavery. And just before he left office he expressed regret about a massacre committed during the Korean War at the village of No Gun Ri, in which U.S. troops fired on civilians who were hiding under a railroad bridge, killing a large but unknown number.

While these were heartfelt expressions of personal sorrow for the death and destruction of war and slavery, they weren't official apologies. A formal apology carries the force of official government policy and law. That would have entailed accepting official responsibility for the wrongs. It would have increased the clamor from black activists for reparations, and the demands by South Korean groups for compensation for the No Gun Ri massacre.

But even if Clinton had formally apologized for slavery and the Korean massacre, there would have been little political fall-out for his administration.

The acts happened decades ago, and did not involve any wrongdoing on his watch. But an apology by Rice, or any Bush administration official, for the 9/11 failures, especially in what shapes up to be a hotly contested political dogfight with presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, would be fraught with political danger. A Rice apology would be more than an admission of mistakes by Bush officials; it would imply that they were negligent and incompetent.

That would mortally damage the image that Bush has painstakingly designed of the tough, resolute, take no prisoners "war president." Terrorism and security are the issues that he banks on to hold onto the White House.

In his opening statement before the 9/11 Commission, Clarke said that he and those entrusted with protecting the American public failed. But Clarke expressed his personal sorrow for the 3000 dead, and his compassion for the relatives of the September 11 victims, as a private citizen. He is not concerned with protecting a president, or winning an election, or in upholding a see-no evil political tradition. Condi is.

Visit Hutchinson at The Hutchinson Report.

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