Critics, however, won't have been disabused of their claim that the strategic mindset of Rice and other top officials had left the administration's focus before 9/11 on issues such as missile defense at the expense of grasping the immediacy of the terror threat. Expect to see discussion about the August 6 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing referred to repeatedly during Dr. Rice's testimony occupying plenty of headline space for some weeks to come its very headline "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" suggests that the President was alerted to the general danger by the FBI and CIA more than a month ahead of the attacks. The classified document, which has been shown to the Commission, allegedly also contains an explicit reference to an al-Qaeda interest in hijackings in the U.S. although Rice insisted it included no concrete warnings. The dispute over just what the briefing contained has prompted the Commission has urged the Bush administration to declassify it, and this call will likely be the next point of contention now that Dr. Rice's testimony is out of the way.
Bush administration critics will continue to agree with former terrorism czar Richard Clarke's claim that the administration's limited focus on Iraq got in the way of an effective campaign against al-Qaeda immediately after 9/11 a criticism amplified in hindsight by the extent to which the Iraq invasion has boosted rather than undermined support in the Muslim world for Osama bin Laden's movement.
The depth of election-year partisan division, not only on Capitol Hill but also in the electorate, will likely limit the extent to which either Rice or Clarke's testimony alters the political landscape. Rice's calm, competent performance, has redeemed the administration somewhat. But calls for declassification of the August 6 briefing and questions over the duration and nature of the joint Bush-Cheney appearance before the commission will keep the fires of Democratic criticism over 9/11 burning for weeks to come.
Meanwhile, Back In Iraq...
Although Rice's testimony produced no bombshells, there were plenty exploding in Iraq even as she spoke. The uprising among both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis that has shaken Coalition forces there and thrown U.S. transition plans into crisis may be a more immediate concern on the minds of the American electorate than the increasingly partisan post-mortem over 9/11.
On Iraq, however, the partisan calculus is different. Looking back, the Democrats accuse the administration of misleading the American people and mishandling the political, military and diplomatic planning. But with some 120,000 U.S. troops under fire in Iraq, partisan divisions begin to blur when it comes to the question of what must be done. Both sides emphasize their commitment to "staying the course," and whether the issue is sending reinforcements, taking steps to win greater international support or revising political plans to adjust to unfortunate new realities, Kerry may find it hard to stake out territory that's substantially different than Bush. Notwithstanding the 9/11 Commission and the crisis in Iraq, the question facing the electorate may yet be posed primarily in terms of to which side they would be more comfortable entrusting stewardship of the nation's security. Which is, of course, exactly how the Bush administration wants the question to be framed.