By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/18/2004 3:56:59 PM ET 2004-03-18T20:56:59

Below is an edited portion of an exclusive NBC News interview of Bush administration national security adviser Condoleezza Rice by NBC Senior Investigative Producer Lisa Myers, concerning missed opportunities in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Lisa Myers:  Okay, you -- you came into office in January of 2001.  You're shown the Predator video.  Having seen the Predator's capabilities, why didn't you push to get the Predator back up into Afghanistan as soon as it was tested in June of 2001?

Dr. Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor:  Well, in fact, we did push very hard on getting the Predator back up.  I think all of us were impressed with the potential of Predator.  The problem was to get an armed Predator, a Predator that could both provide reconnaissance so you could see a target and then shoot at the target.

Because if you could only see the target, it took a good long time to get strike assets into the air.  And by that time the target had moved and so forth.  So, we were all very interested in the armed Predator.

There were tests done on the armed Predator.  It was a developmental system.  The tests were -- not conclusive.  In fact, there were problems with the operational capability of the warhead.  And we wanted to be sure to marry the right ordinance, the right warhead with the Predator.  Because if you've ever used it and, in fact, didn't fire, they would know from then on what it was that you were doing.

And so, our assessment and the assessment of our counterintelligence people, the assessment of the military was that the earliest that the armed Predator could fly was in the fall.  The good news is that we pressed very hard.  And when September 11th and we were actually in Afghanistan, we were ready to fly the armed Predator shortly after the war began.

Myers:  The President — the President had said he was tired of swatting flies.  Did you ever say, "September isn't soon enough?  The threat is too serious.  We have got to get this back up there."

Rice:  Well, we did think about how fast we could accelerate the work on the Predator.  But you always have to be careful to make sure that you're going to have something that works.  And the tests had not been conclusive.

In fact, the tests had — had shown some of the limitations in the warhead.  It was important to get it back up.  It was important that it worked.  We pressed very hard particularly, at the White House to clear out all of the underbrush — funding issues, command and control issues so that when it was ready to fly and again, the assessment was that it would be ready to fly in the fall — that we would be ready to go.  We felt that that was as fast as we could get it done.

Myers:  But can you see how to the American people, here the Predator got us closer to Bin Laden then we've ever been.  Yet it stays parked for many, many months until it's too late.

Global dragnet

Rice:  Well, first of all, it's not at all clear that the — the Predator was not a silver bullet.  Let's be very clear about that.  Even if you'd been able to get Predator up, even if you'd — you'd been able to kill Bin Laden, I think the assessment of the — the analytical intelligence was that it probably would not have prevented the attack on September 11th.

I understand that everybody would like to find what was the silver bullet that would have kept September 11th from happening.  What we were doing in Afghanistan, the ability to fly Predator, the ability to fly armed Predator — an instrument that we all wanted very much was not going to stop the attacks of September 11th.  Probably the only thing that wo -- in retrospect, when you look back and you ask, "What was really the problem?"  You look at the fact that most of this plot was hatched early in 2001.

That by the time that we got to the summer of 2001, at least 16 of 19 hijackers were already in the United States for the — for the final time.  That's the FBI assessment.  These people -- were ready to carry out the attack.

The -- the problem was that we were, as a country, somewhat blind to what was happening inside the country.  Because we had had a very big wall between domestic intelligence, domestic collection and — information and what the CIA did.  It was only after September 11th that the country came to terms with the fact that the FBI and the CIA needed to be able to coordinate on collection and on sharing of intelligence in a way that would let us know what was going on in the country.  So, I understand that everybody wants to know what would have kept September fr -- 11th from happening.  As hard as we wanted to, as hard as we tried to get the Predator up, as much as we worked to get it up, that would not have prevented September 11th.

Myers:  But still with the broader issues and to, one, give you a chance to answer some of the things that are out there from the critics, first that there was no sense of urgency in the Bush Administration about terrorism.  In retrospect, is it true, that Russia, China, Iraq, missile defense, were all higher priorities than fighting terrorism?

Rice:  Terrorism was a high priority for this administration.  As a matter of fact, yes, we were concerned about weapons of mass destruction and their spread.  We're still concerned about the spread of weapons of mass destruction and, therefore, the need for ballistic missile defense.  Yes, it was important to build relations with Russia and China.

You know Lisa, the first full policy document, signed by the President on a major policy issue was not about Iraq.  It was not about Russia.  It was not about China.  It was a plan to eliminate al-Qaida.

And that plan to eliminate al-Qaeda was going to take three to five years prior to September 11th.  Now, we — what we did when we came into office was to keep in place the Clinton Administration policy which had been a policy to try and roll back al-Qaeda.  We continued to pursue that policy.  We thought that we needed a more robust policy.

And so, we did create a — a major comprehensive policy that would bring all the elements of national power to eliminating al-Qaida.  We had something of a rolling start.  Because our counterterrorism people had given us a list of ideas of things that might make for a more robust policy.

Some of those we did almost immediately.  We increased counterterrorism funding and intelligence funding in the President's first budget request.  We put ha — more than a dozen new people at the Treasury to deal with terrorist financing.  We increased counterterrorism support to our friend and ally, and it was Uzbekistan, who became by the way a major player after September 11th.  There were some things that we had to take some time to look at.  How could you — how — how should you think about arming the Northern Alliance against the Taliban when, in fact, the Northern Alliance was in less than 10 percent of the country in Afghanistan.  They weren't going to sweep through Afghanistan prior to September 11th.  But we did -- pursue the Clinton Administration policy and pursue it actively until we could get in place a more comprehensive policy, not to roll back al-Qaida but to eliminate al-Qaeda.

Myers:  You named in the spring of 2001 that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole.  Why didn't you retaliate?

Rice:  The U.S.S. Cole was a terrible, terrible incident.  And it demonstrated yet again that Osama bin Laden was a threat to the United States.  We really felt that after 1998 when they had bombed the embassies and the response had not been an overwhelming military response  that, in fact, it had a tendency to embolden the — the terrorists.

And we were worried, particularly since in the campaign we had said we wouldn't have pinprick strikes using military force.  We were concerned that we didn't have good military options.  That really all we had were options like using cruise missiles to go after training camps that had long since been abandoned and that it might have just the opposite effect.  It might, in fact, embolden the terrorist not — not frighten them or not think that they were being taken seriously.  Our response to the U.S.S. Cole was to get a strategy in place that could finally eliminate the threat of al-Qaida to the United States.

Myers:  Now, our sources say that in the spring of 2000 that the camps in Afghanistan were thriving — that you could have hit the camps and killed lots of terrorists.

Rice:  The problem was to hit camps with a few cruise missiles; even if you'd been fortunate to — to get a few people really wasn't going to impress al-Qaida — al-Qaida had to be eliminated.  What the country had to do was to come to terms with the fact that you needed a major restructuring of American diplomatic policy.  You needed a new set of choices about Pakistan, about Pakistan's role in — prior to 9-11, Pakistan was supporting the Taliban.

That made it very difficult to get at the Taliban and, therefore, to eliminate al-Qaeda.  We needed a major look at new military options that would give the President something more than just using cruise missiles against these people.  We really thought that — as my counterterrorist experts said to me, "If you respond when you respond to something like the Cole, respond at a time or place of your choosing, not tit for tat, at a time or place of your choosing."

And the time and place of our choosing was to be a broader, more comprehensive, more robust, tougher strategy to eliminate al-Qaida.  September 11th intervened.  And then the United States was able, with its allies, to do things that frankly, would have been unthinkable before September 11th like using American ground forces and using bases in central Asia — things that probably were not in the cards before September 11th.

Myers:  Do you think the administration can legitimately be faulted for spending nine months hashing out a policy when the threats are growing by the day?  They — in retrospect, shouldn't you have done something?

Rice:  Lisa, we were in office 230 plus days.  That's how long this administration was in office before September 11th.  Al-Qaida had been a problem for many years, not just for 230 days.  And what we were able to do is first of all continue the Clinton administration policy so that there was no gap in what we were doing to deal with the al-Qaida problem.

We were then able to — really on an accelerated basis over that 230 plus days, to put in place a policy that was more robust, that really did envision a fairly dramatic restructuring of our diplomatic initiatives; that put real funding behind the intelligence — part of this.  We tripled the funding for the intelligence aspects of taking down al-Qaida.  We were able to look more seriously and put in place new people, more people who could work on terrorist financing.

It was 233 days.  And even if we had been able to do it in 190 or 160 days, it was a policy that our counterterrorism people told us was going to — to eliminate al-Qaida over three to five years.  This was not something that was going to stop September 11th.

The Northern Alliance was not going to sweep through Afghanistan, defeat the Taliban and defeat Al-Qaeda in a period of six months.  It simply wasn't going to happen.

Myers:  Last question, I know we're out of time.  Is it true that some senior members of the Bush Administration viewed Saddam Hussein as a greater threat to our national security than Osama bin Laden?

Rice:  I don't think you have to make a choice.  These were both great threats to our national security.  Everybody knew the story of Osama bin Laden.  We'd all been briefed.

First of all, we were all international relation specialists.  We knew about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.  And the Clinton administration, to its credit, gave us very good transition briefings about — about al-Qaida and Saddam and al-Qaida and the — the threat of Osama bin Laden.

The President had many, many sessions with the direct of Central Intelligence about the al-Qaida threat.  That is what led him to say, "I'm tired of swatting at flies.  I want a comprehensive strategy to eliminate al-Qaida."  We knew about this threat.  We also knew, and it was important to recognize, that we had a problem in Iraq

Everyday Saddam Hussein's forces were fighting firing at our pilots who were — who were flying in the No-Fly Zone.  We had forces tied down in the Saudi Arabia trying to keep him from attacking his neighbors, attacking his people.  We'd gone to war against him in 1991.  We'd gone to war against him in 1998.  We had, in 1998, the country had decided that he was so dangerous we had to have a regime change policy

You didn't have to choose.  You needed to deal both with — with al-Qaida.  And you needed to deal with Iraq.  The President, after September 11th, put dealing with Afghanistan and their — their training camps and their base in Afghanistan first.  But the broader war on terror required that we deal with all of the potential operating bases for terrorists of their kind, of global threat and, ultimately, that we deal with a Middle East that is much in need of change if we're not going to face terrorists for many, many years to come.

September 11th was a terrible event in the history of the United States.  I think that people dealt with al-Qaida as they best knew how, the Clinton administration before us and — and the Bush Administration.  But the fact of the matter is when we went to war against them, after September 11th, we went to war against them with all of the assets of the United States fully deployed.  And it's still going to take a long time to defeat them.

Myers:  Thank you very much.

Rice:  Thank you very much.

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