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Rice: Bush understood al-Qaeda threat
Updated: 2004-04-09 00:22

Under contentious questioning, US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified Thursday "there was no silver bullet that could have prevented" the deadly terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and disputed suggestions that US President Bush failed to focus on the threat of strikes in advance.

Bush "understood the threat, and he understood its importance," she told a national commission investigating the worst terror attacks in the nation's history.

In nearly three hours in the witness chair, Rice stoutly defended Bush when Democrats on the commission raised questions about the administration's attentiveness to terrorism, and implicitly and explicitly rebutted a series of charges made two weeks ago by former terrorism aide Richard Clarke.

In widely anticipated testimony, Rice offered no apology for the failure to prevent the attacks as Clarke did two weeks ago. Instead, she said, "as an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt."

Rice said the president came into office determined to develop a "more robust" policy to combat al-Qaeda. "He made clear to me that he did not want to respond to al-Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was 'tired of swatting flies'," she told the commission delving into the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the twin World Trade Center towers in New York and blasted a hole in the Pentagon.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is sworn in before testifying to the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks Thursday, April 8, 2004, in Washington.  [AP]
But she also said, "Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing."

Her comment about swatting flies drew a sharp response from former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who noted the administration made no military response to an attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

"Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once ... How the hell could he (Bush) be tired," Kerrey asked.

"I think it's only a figure of speech," she replied, adding that Bush felt that the CIA was "going after individual terrorists."

She later said a further, similar attack may have emboldened the perpetrators, and American interests were better served by a broader response designed to undermine al-Qaeda.

Rice also clashed with Richard Ben Veniste and former Democratic Rep. Tom Roemer when they pressed her to say how much the president had been informed of the threat of terror activity.

She said a classified briefing paper prepared for the president on Aug. 6, 2001 was a "historical" document despite its title: Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States." She said it contained no "actionable" intelligence, meaning it lacked information that would have alerted agencies to the imminent threat.

Thomas Kean, the commission Republican chairman, said at hearing's end that he would ask the White House to declassify the document.

Rice was emphatic on one point that the threat of terrorism had been building for years, and the administration was only in office 233 days before al-Qaeda struck.

"The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them," she said.

"For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America's response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient," Rice acknowledged.

"In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies," she said.

Rice's testimony, under oath and on live national television, came after weeks of White House resistance. Bush yielded in response to repeated public requests from members of the commission as well as quiet proddings of Republicans in Congress that an on-the-record rebuttal was needed in response to Clarke's explosive charges.

The former White House aide testified last month that the Bush administration gave a lower priority to combatting terrorism than had former President Clinton, and that the decision to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror. In addition to raising questions about administration attention to the threat of terrorism, his remarks implicitly challenged a key underpinning of Bush's campaign for re-election.

Rice's appearance was businesslike for the most part, first turning contentious when Ben-Veniste pressed her on what was known about the terrorist threat in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks. They interrupted one another repeatedly, the interrogator and the witness.

"I would like to finish my point," she said when he began speaking while she was.

"I didn't know there was a point," he replied.

Under questioning, Rice acknowledged that she had spoken too broadly once when she said that no one had ever envisioned terrorists using planes and crashing them into buildings. She said that aides came to her within days and said there had been reports or memos about that possibility, but that she hadn't seen them.

Pointing a finger of blame, she said that senior officials "have to depend on intelligence agencies to tell you what is relevant."

She also directly challenged one of the claims made by Clarke, who said earlier that the administration had moved slowly on some of the recommendations he and others made before the attacks.

"I'm now convinced that while nothing in this strategy would have done anything about 9-11, if we had in fact moved on the things that were in the original memos that we got from our counterterrorism people, we might have even gone off course," she said.

Asked to rebut Clarke's claim that Bush pressed him to find an Iraq connection to the suicide hijackings, Rice said she did not recall such a discussion but that "I'm quite certain the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts."

She added, "It is not surprising that the president would say 'What about Iraq?'" But she said that when Bush's top advisers met after Sept. 11, none recommended action against Iraq before taking military action against Afghanistan.

In her prepared testimony, Rice neither criticized Clarke nor offered a point by point rebuttal of his appearance.

She said she made the unusual decision to retain him when the new administration came into office, saying, he was an "expert in his field, as well as an experienced crisis manager."

She said confronting terrorists competed with other foreign policy concerns when the president came into office, but added that the administration's top national security advisers completed work on the first major national security policy directive of the administration on Sept. 4. The subject, she said, was "not Russia, not missile defense, not Iraq, but the elimination of al-Qaeda."

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