Condoleezza Rice’s Lost September 11 Speech
William Safire wrote in the introduction to his classic compendium Lend Me Your Ears that “what makes a draft speech a real speech is the speaking of it.” But I’ve found that some of the most interesting speeches written were never delivered at all. I spent years collecting examples of the words that went unspoken because events intervened, or a leader had a change of heart, or history took a sudden turn.
Last year, shortly after leaving my role as a special assistant and senior speechwriter for President Joe Biden, I published them as a book. For 19 of the speeches I wrote about—all historically significant, many previously unseen—I could offer readers the full text of what might have been. The 20th remained elusive.
From the September 2021 issue: What Bobby McIlvaine left behind
I first learned of its existence in 2004, from a report in The Washington Post. “Top Focus Before 9/11 Wasn’t on Terrorism; Rice Speech Cited Missile Defense,” the front-page headline read. The story by Robin Wright detailed a speech that was to have been delivered by President George W. Bush’s national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on September 11, 2001. In the excerpts published by the Post, she seemed dismissive of the threat of terrorism: “We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway, [but] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open.”
But the Post hadn’t seen the full speech, and assessing the excerpts without their full context was difficult. In 2019, as I began working on my book in earnest, I filed a FOIA request, which yielded ancillary materials used in the creation of the speech, but not the text itself. I then requested relevant documents from the files of the man who’d drafted the speech. That, too, was denied. I appealed last September. And a month ago, I finally received the drafts and read the speech that the public never heard, and whose authors tried so hard to forget had ever existed.
What I found was more measured and more thoughtful than I had expected. It also held some surprises. As we mark the 22nd anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the speech might be more relevant than at any time since the morning on which it was suddenly scrapped.
On August 6, 2001, Matthew Waxman, who was serving as Rice’s executive assistant, tapped out an email to John Gibson, the National Security Council’s director for foreign-policy speechwriting. “DCR would like to change the focus of the Rostov Lecture,” he wrote. “Instead of focusing on the unilateralism/isolationism issue, she’d like to speak on missile defense … She wants to emphasize that missile defense is one part of a larger effort to transform the relationship w/Russia. As she says it, ‘lets take a shot at 10 years of calling it the post-Cold-War era.’ It’s time to move beyond.”
Gibson turned to Bob Joseph, who was serving as the NSC’s senior director for proliferation strategy, and asked him to put together a draft that would reflect the limited guidance they had. (Like other Bush-administration officials named in this story, Gibson did not respond to my request to speak about the preparation of the speech.)
“We really ought to use this opportunity to do something we’ve never done in the President’s speeches and statements on this: take on the countervailing arguments,” Gibson wrote. “The president’s speeches on this have been very good in making an affirmative case for why he’s right and this speech should also, but I think it would greatly benefit by fully acknowledging and dealing with the other side … By not doing it on this issue, I think we have not only failed to score substantive points but have also reinforced some negative impressions of the President – i.e., when you don’t take people’s arguments on, it reinforces a charge of arrogance and unilateralism.” Gibson also noted that the Rostov Lecture, held at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, “is a fairly big deal, serious talk.” And he reminded everyone of the timeline to get it written; Rice would be delivering it on September 10, 2001. He was off by a day. The speech was actually scheduled for September 11.
Conventional wisdom holds that the threat of massive retaliation is the only thing stopping a nuclear attack on America. This is the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, or MAD.
But a small group of policy makers disagree, emphasizing instead the potential of missile defense. The idea really entered the public conversation in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan called for the use of ground- and space-based systems to shield the United States against a first-strike missile attack. The goal, he said, was to make “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Reagan called the plan the Strategic Defense Initiative. But it was largely theoretical, dependent on yet-to-be-invented technologies such as X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions. Senator Ted Kennedy derisively described these ideas as “reckless Star Wars schemes.” The nickname stuck.
Research and investment in missile defense did move forward, but because of the technical complexity of such systems (the analogy most often used was “hitting a bullet with a bullet”), support for long-range missile defense was more about ideological positioning than practical
deployment. And the ideology, in the words of Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, was “a radical rejection of benign acquiescence in mutual assured destruction.”
But even if the cost could be borne and the technical and political hurdles overcome, a geopolitical hurdle would remain. In 1972, the United States became a signatory to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was explicitly designed to prevent countries from building missile defenses. The philosophy behind the treaty was that no defense would be perfect, so any missile defense would simply force adversaries to build up their missile offenses, leading to endless arms escalation.
Although the treaty became a cornerstone of American foreign policy, and several follow-on agreements reduced nuclear arsenals, many conservative policy makers remained adamant that the ABM was dangerously outdated, because it didn’t account for ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue states or actors.
One of those policy makers was Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense under President Gerald Ford and returned to that role under President George W. Bush. In 1998, Rumsfeld chaired a commission to assess the ballistic-missile threat to the United States, and though the findings of the report it produced were controversial, it stated that a rogue ballistic-missile threat could emerge sooner than previously thought. One month later, North Korea launched a missile that was intended to put a payload into orbit (a necessary precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile), further stoking those fears.
When President Bush came into office in 2001, his foreign-policy team was focused on the linked goals of withdrawing America from the ABM Treaty and building an effective missile-defense system. In a speech to the National Defense University four months after his election, Bush made the case for building a missile-defense system (despite the immature technology) and for the need to “move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM Treaty.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell remained skeptical, preferring to bring allies along rather than act rashly and unilaterally in scrapping the treaty. Nor did he see much of a rush: Missile defense remained unproven, controversial, and costly.
However, Powell was being outmaneuvered by Rice. From the moment she was named national-security adviser, Rice staked out a role that made her both more of a policy architect and more of a policy advocate than many of her predecessors were. Indeed, Rice, not Powell, became the Bush administration’s first top foreign-policy official to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a departure from traditional protocol that hadn’t occurred since Henry Kissinger served as national-security adviser. Similarly, Rice, not Powell, gave the major speech laying out the administration’s foreign policy. And Rice was the one now preparing to deliver the Rostov Lecture.
On September 9, 2001, Rice appeared on Meet the Press to argue that it “would not be … responsible of the president of the United States to not respond to that threat” of ballistic missiles.
The guest who followed her was Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden proceeded to deconstruct Rice’s argument, passionately arguing that missile defense “will not protect us from cruise missiles. It will not protect us from something being smuggled in. It will not protect us from an atom bomb in the rusty hull of a ship coming into a harbor. It will not protect us from anthrax … all of which the Defense Department says are much more likely threats than somebody sending an ICBM with a return address on it.”
The next day, in a speech at the National Press Club, Biden pressed the point further, arguing that “missile defense has to be weighted carefully against all other spending and all other military priorities … In truth, our real security needs are much more earthbound and far less costly than missile defense.”
(Biden’s words sounded especially prescient in retrospect; in the 10 days that followed his appearance, America experienced not just the attacks of September 11 but also a series of deadly anthrax attacks on the offices of two Democratic senators and several news outlets.)
At that moment, another factor was in play: The Bush presidency was foundering. Bush’s policies had driven Senator Jim Jeffords to switch parties, throwing control of the Senate to Democrats and hobbling the president’s legislative agenda. The Dow had dropped by nearly 10 percent since Bush had taken office, unemployment was on the rise, and a poll that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post found that a majority of Americans no longer approved of his signature tax cut. Republican senators were claiming that the Bush administration’s foreign policy lacked a big picture.
In this context, a strong statement on missile defense felt like it could satisfy both the policy goals of the true missile-defense believers and the political goals of providing strength, clarity, and direction.
The initial draft, prepared by John Rood and Bob Joseph, arrived in Gibson’s email on September 7. In order to make the argument against the ABM Treaty, it first credentialed Rice as one of its biggest proponents.
I was one of the High Priestesses of Arms Control; a true believer. I had little doubt that sound, verifiable arms agreements were a way the world could avoid the Apocalypse. Like so many others, I eagerly anticipated those breathtaking moments of summitry where the centerpiece was always the signing of the latest arms control treaty; the toast; the handshake, and, with Brezhnev, the bear hug. For those precious few minutes the world found comfort in seeing the superpowers affirm their peaceful intent. And the scientists would set the clock back a few minutes further away from midnight. Deep down we knew that arms control was a poor substitute for a real shared agenda based on common aspirations. But it was the best way anyone could think of regulating the balance of terror.
Her authority thus established, Rice turned to explain why those agreements were no longer relevant, why those handshakes and toasts were worthless, and why it was time to pursue missile defense in a robust way, replacing a reliance on treaties and multilateral agreements with a comprehensive strategy to deal with proliferation.
The section that followed, however, failed to deliver that comprehensive strategy, or much of a strategy at all. It enumerated the treaties the administration supported that were currently in force, and then attacked the Clinton administration for its approach to these agreements.
That Administration often signed treaties that it knew the U.S. Senate would never approve of for ratification. At other times, it justified its signature of flawed agreements as necessary to enable it to seek changes to the documents later. In the private sector, no one believes that signing a contract is the best way to get it changed. This is true of treaties as well.
In short, we will not sign treaties that do not serve our national interests. It is not isolationist to suggest that the United States has a special role in the world and should not adhere to every international convention or agreement that someone thinks to propose. Going along with the crowd is not leadership.
An additional point the initial draft made was that the pursuit of missile defense would not stand in the way of protecting against “other means of delivering a WMD payload to the United States, such as a terrorist using a suitcase or car bomb.” By the time the draft reached its fourth iteration, that idea had shrunk to a couple of paragraphs.
Gibson thought the draft was a strong start, although he asked pointed questions—for example, was the “2.5 percent of the defense budget” that was cited as the cost the total, or a downpayment on some tests? If the latter, he thought that shouldn’t be buried rhetorically, but stated clearly, as “a very modest payment to at least find out what we can do.”
He worked to more thoroughly dismantle arguments in favor of the ABM Treaty. One line of argument—“If the ABM Treaty had never existed, no serious person would urge us to create such an agreement today”—was consistent in each successive draft.
However, the next line fell out. “Yet serious people do defend the treaty—with an attachment that almost seems theological.” Gibson seems to have recognized the irony of mocking an excess of belief while promoting a technology that required a leap of faith.
But Gibson thought that the draft was missing some of the “strong leadership” points he wanted to make. So the subsequent iterations (I was able to review four drafts in all) sharpened their criticism of treaties, noting:
The United States is a signatory to over 50 conventions and treaties that still await ratification … Many were designed even though—or even worse, because their ratification prospects were so grim … The United States is a great power. We have been for a century. Today, we occupy a position on the global stage that can only be described as singular. Our interests span every time zone. Nothing anytime soon is going to change that fact. And it is neither isolationist—nor unilateralist—to suggest that we have to adhere to every international convention and agreement that someone thinks to propose.
One of the documents that appears in the speech file seems to be an attempt to buttress that call for leadership. It’s a series of quotes from President Harry Truman on the importance of leaders doing what is right, polls be damned, including this choice one:
How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt? What would Jesus Christ have preached if he had taken a poll in the land of Israel? What would have happened to the Reformation if Martin Luther had taken a poll? It isn’t polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It’s right and wrong and leadership.
If one of the goals of Rice’s speech was to burnish Bush’s leadership bona fides, a quote from a president that served to put Bush in the company of Moses, Jesus, and Martin Luther wouldn’t have hurt.
No Truman quote, however, made it into any of the drafts that I was able to gain access to. Gibson did write his own version of that idea, in what reads today as a powerful—but tragically ironic—line:
Once you strip away the myths, misconceptions, shibboleths, I think the argument becomes pretty simple. If you think the threat is real—and it is—and if you think we have the technology to protect ourselves against the threat—and a robust testing program will tell us—then don’t you have an obligation to move forward? Would it be gross malfeasance to take a pass? Five, ten, fifteen years from now—following some catastrophic event—I certainly would not want to be in the position of having to answer why, in the face of these facts and these arguments, I urged a course of inaction. And I won’t.
Of course, the defining catastrophic event of a young century was already in motion.
On the morning of September 11, Gibson was going back and forth with Rice on final edits.
Interestingly, none of the four drafts I was able to access included the lines that appeared so damning in the excerpts that were leaked years later to The Washington Post. (They were apparently added between the fourth and final drafts.)
Rice was in her office at 8:46 a.m. when her assistant told her that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. Like most Americans, Rice thought it was a horrible accident. She was in her regular 9 a.m. staff meeting when her assistant rushed in: A second plane had hit the other tower of the World Trade Center.
Even in the midst of world-changing events, many speechwriters are afflicted with a project-based myopia, trying to figure out if a speech will still happen and, if so, how much of it will need to be rewritten. In a conversation we had years ago, Gibson remembered keeping his phone on throughout the afternoon, wondering if the speech would still be given and awaiting any additional edits, even as it became clear that the United States had suffered its most devastating attack since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The speech he wrote was never delivered.
Seven months after September 11, Rice finally gave the Rostov Lecture. Her new speech showed just how quickly and completely the world had changed.
Rice spoke almost exclusively about the administration’s anti-terrorism efforts. The only mention of missile defense was a reference to using “every tool at our disposal to meet this grave global threat.” There was no need to rhetorically manufacture strong leadership against the theoretical threat of missiles when President Bush had seized the opportunity—from atop a smoldering pile of rubble at Ground Zero and in the well of the House of Representatives—to demonstrate that toughness against the clear and present threat of terrorism.
Rice celebrated the international cooperation, intelligence sharing, and multilateral partnerships required to effectively prosecute the War on Terror—the very relationships her earlier, undelivered speech had been set to diminish, if not dismiss outright.
According to the Washington Post article that broke the story about the original speech, administration officials said that the speech Rice ultimately delivered did not contain any of the original text. However, that wasn’t quite accurate. One phrase appeared in both drafts: “tectonic plates.”
In the original speech, Rice was to have chided supporters of the ABM for “a failure to recognize that the tectonic plates of history really have shifted.” In the remarks she ultimately delivered in April 2002, she said, “An earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics.”
From the September 2021 issue: 9/11 was a warning of what was to come
Today, there are those such as James Acton, who leads the nuclear-policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who argue that America’s withdrawal from the ABM, which formally took place in December 2001, has failed to yield a system that could protect us from a rogue state such as North Korea. It has, however, fueled a new arms race, encouraging Russia to develop new nuclear-delivery systems, such as intercontinental hypersonic gliders, and China to arm some ICBMs with multiple warheads. In that sense, our withdrawal may have intensified the very threat its proponents claimed it would counteract.
It’s fitting that the only phrase that survives both drafts is “tectonic plates.” After all, the historical lesson and the geological lesson are one and the same, one that has the power to shake our world: Tectonic plates are always shifting.
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