This post may someday be historical, but it’s unlikely to be historic

During her Thursday testimony, Rice used the word “historic” once and used the word “historical” almost ten times. For example, this exchange with Chairman Kean (full transcript here), on the historical nature of information about planes-as-weapons:

KEAN: I’ve got a question now I’d like to ask you. It was given to me by a number of members of the families.

Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9/11 that talked about using planes as bombs?

RICE: Let me address this question because it has been on the table … And I said, at one point, that this was a historical memo, that it was — it was not based on new threat information. And I said, “No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon” — I’m paraphrasing now — “into the World Trade Center, using planes as a missile.”

Here’s another, on the historical nature of the 8/6/01 PDB:

BEN-VENISTE: I want to ask you some questions about the August 6, 2001, PDB. … Did you tell the president, at any time prior to August 6th, of the existence of al Qaeda cells in the United States?

[crosstalk — my redaction]

RICE: If you’ll just give me a moment, I will address fully the questions that you’ve asked.

First of all, yes, the August 6th PDB was in response to questions of the president — and that since he asked that this be done. It was not a particular threat report. And there was historical information in there about various aspects of al Qaeda’s operations.

And here’s the most widely shown exchange:

BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?

RICE: I believe the title was, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”

Now, the…

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste…

BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the…

RICE: I would like to finish my point here.

BEN-VENISTE: I didn’t know there was a point.

RICE: Given that — you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks.

BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.

RICE: You said, did it not warn of attacks. It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.

Other usages of variants of “historic” by Rice include

  • Commissioner, this was not a warning. This was a historic memo — historical memo prepared by the agency because the president was asking questions about what we knew about the inside.
  • The president was told this is historical information.
  • It is just not the case that the August 6th memorandum did anything but put together what the CIA decided that they wanted to put together about historical knowledge about what was going on and a few things about what the FBI might be doing.
  • Well, August 6th is most certainly an historical document that says, “Here’s how you might think about al Qaeda.”

From Thursday until this evening, everyone thought that by “historical,” Rice meant old, outdated, and from the past. But now details of that August 6th PDB are leaking out and it turns out that the threat information was nearly contemporaneous with the August 6th meeting and PDB:

President Bush’s August 2001 briefing on terrorism threats, described largely as a historical document, included information from three months earlier that al-Qaeda was trying to send operatives into the United States for an explosives attack, according to several people who have seen the memo.

The so-called presidential daily briefing, or PDB, delivered to Bush on August 6, 2001 — a month before the September 11 attacks — said there were various reports that Osama bin Laden had wanted to strike inside the United States as early as 1997 and continuing into the spring of 2001, the sources told The Associated Press.

Without reflection, one might conclude that Dr. Rice was being misleading and intentionally deceptive, but one would surely be wrong. Let’s turn to the dictionary:

his-tor-ic adj.

1. Having importance in or influence on history.

2. Historical. even includes this cautionary usage note:

Usage Note: Historic and historical have different usages, though their senses overlap. Historic refers to what is important in history: the historic first voyage to the moon. It is also used of what is famous or interesting because of its association with persons or events in history: a historic house. Historical refers to whatever existed in the past, whether regarded as important or not: a minor historical character. Historical also refers to anything concerned with history or the study of the past: a historical novel; historical discoveries. While these distinctions are useful, these words are often used interchangeably, as in historic times or historical times.

So, the explanation is clear: the one time Condi said “historic,” she meant it in the sense of really, really, really, important. The remaining times when she said “historical”, she meant it in the sense of “historic.” She surely never meant to imply that intelligence from May of 2001 indicating that “al-Qaeda was trying to send operatives into the United States” was dated or not cause for action. To the contrary, she must have meant that its importance was historical historic.


UPDATE: Via Atrios, I see that the NYT has failed to correctly understand Dr. Rice’s meaning:

The disclosure appears to contradict the White House’s repeated assertions that the briefing the president received about the Qaeda threat was “historical” in nature and that the White House had little reason to suspect a Qaeda attack within American borders.