Does policy structure need update?
As Rice defends her stand, the issue may be more the system than the personnel.
The Bush administration has been forcefully clear that the war on terrorism would be its mark in history, so it is not surprising that it would be evaluated and eventually judged - especially in an election year - according to performance in that war.
With a commission investigating the lead up and response to Sept. 11, and with a string of books questioning how the Bush administration has addressed the urgency of the terrorism threat, the focus has turned to the president's national security team.
After the appearance of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday, during which she said she didn't know how "we could have done more" to stop the 9/11 attacks, the already high heat has only turned up on both Dr. Rice and the whole Bush foreign policy team.
Yet the issue may not be so much one of the people involved as the structure in place to deal with national security and specifically the terrorism threat, some experts say. Where the White House fell down, even some past members of GOP national security teams say, was in dovetailing national security - which during the cold war was seen as a foreign-policy matter - with its domestic ramifications. Rice was not on top of coordinating the international and domestic aspects of national security before Sept. 11, says Raymond Tanter, a former NSC official in the Reagan administration, but that is because the redefinition of national security prompted by 9/11 had not yet occurred.
"If Henry Kissinger had been the national security adviser in July of 2001, he would have been in the same position as Rice," says Mr. Tanter. "The problem was and in some ways continues to be international and domestic coordination. Even Kissinger, as strong as he was, had no authority to knock around somebody like [Attorney General] John Mitchell."
Tanter says the Clinton administration was successful in creating the foreign-domestic coordination "ad hoc," as seen in the successful derailing of a planned terrorist attack on Los Angeles International Airport in late 1999.
But he says the noninstitutionalized way in which that coordination was organized meant it was not automatically carried over into the new administration. Another factor, he and others say, is that the top members of the Bush foreign-policy team were largely focused on state sponsors of terrorism, at a time when the threat was increasingly from nonstate groups like Al Qaeda - as Sept. 11 would show. "When they took office, [the Bush team] based their foreign policy on their prior experience, their own long histories, and that history had much to do with conventional states rather than nonstate actors like terrorist groups," says James Mann, a security expert at the Center for Security and International Studies.
Referring to the six figures he places at the top of the Bush foreign policy apparatus - Rice; Secretary of State Colin Powell; Vice President Dick Cheney; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy Paul Wolfowitz; and Mr. Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage - Mann says: "Really none of these six individuals with the possible exception of Armitage [when he was earlier at the Pentagon] was closely involved with that problem [of terrorism]."
According to Tanter, the Bush administration put even more of the preponderance of attention on state actors in foreign policy than the Clinton administration had. But he notes that even the State Department had not added organizations to its list of sponsors of terrorism until 1997. "And even then Al Qaeda did not make the hit parade until later in the game," he adds.
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who served the first president Bush, has said that Rice has faced a particularly daunting task in the NSC perch because the Bush II team is made up of very strong individuals with sometimes very differing opinions. Some critics say Rice has been weak at riding herd over the differing opinions and has been too much of a coordinator and not enough of a policymaker herself.
But Mr. Mann disagrees, saying that Rice labored to, and to some extent succeeded at, bridging historical differences within the GOP on foreign policy - between "realists" focused on competing national interests and "Wilsonians" focused on America as a light to the world.
Each administration designs its national security team differently - under Nixon, Dr. Kissinger was both national security adviser and secretary of state - with some presidents preferring strong cabinet members and weaker White House staffs. Until the controversy over testimony to the terrorism commission and executive privilege, Rice was a low-key figure compared to other members of the foreign policy team. Rice herself has said her role is to talk through issues with the president and translate his strong sense of right and wrong into policy. That has kept her out of the limelight, but not necessarily in an insignificant position.
"It's not that she is weak, but that the structure in this White House was designed to be weak to permit a wide expression of views and attract strong figures to other positions," says Tanter.
How that might change if there is a second Bush term is a question now surfacing. Rice has said this will be her last year in the White House - but most observers assume that does not rule out a stint running the State Department, where an anticipated Powell departure would leave a top-floor vacancy. "Uniquely of these six vulcans, she's the one who is probably less enamored of life in government than the others ... [but] I think she may end up as secretary of State," says Mann.
Yet whatever a future Bush team looked like, the most important change may still be redefining "national security" post 9/11. The biggest "change we're seeing is in the structure the people have to work with to address terrorism," says Tanter.