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Rice defends anti-terror moves before 9/11

Condoleezza Rice testified Thursday that President Bush received a classified briefing warning of Osama bin Laden’s determination to launch strikes inside the United States a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Condoleeza Rice Testifies Before The 9/11 Commission
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is sworn in before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: and NBC News

White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified Thursday that President Bush received a classified briefing warning of Osama bin Laden’s determination to launch terrorist strikes inside the United States a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The independent commission investigating the attacks demanded that the memo be declassified and released.

Rice, who testified that “no silver bullet” could have prevented the attacks, dismissed the document — the sensitive presidential daily brief — as unimportant, heatedly insisting that it was “a historical memo” that lacked specifics. 

“It did not warn of attacks inside the United States,” Rice said in response to aggressive questioning from Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission. “... And it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles.”

Members of the audience, including some relatives of Sept. 11 victims, applauded as Ben-Veniste demanded that the entire report be declassified, pointedly adding that even its title had been kept secret until it was revealed at Thursday’s hearing.

All nine other members of the commission, including the five Republicans, echoed Ben-Veniste’s call.

Lorie Van Auken, whose husband, Ben Van Auken, died in Tower One of the World Trade Center, said afterward on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that the report was like watching “a preview at the movie theater.”

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a co-chairman of the joint congressional committee that investigated intelligence failures leading up to the attacks, said the memo raised even more troubling questions.

“They should explain why, with such a glaring neon light at the top of the page, somebody didn’t get the message that, ‘Hey, we ought to stop a vacation-like attitude and get to work,’” Graham said in an interview on “Hardball.”

Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, told reporters that the panel would ask the White House to declassify the memo and would seek other information.

“We’ve got some issues related to classified documents,” Kean said. “We expect to be able to follow up and get the answers we need.”

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the administration had “every intention” of declassifying the memo, a rare step for an intelligence report prepared for the president.

‘Not on a war footing’
The exchange between Rice and Ben-Veniste was in keeping with the tone of several clashes during Rice's three hours of testimony.

“It was not easy to get all my questions answered, frankly,” Ben-Veniste said Thursday night in an interview on MSNBC’s “Countdown.”

Democrats on the commission accused the Bush administration of failing to grasp the growing threat that bin Laden’s al-Qaida network posed before the attacks, which killed 2,749 people, destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and blasted a hole in the Pentagon. Had the administration been more attentive, “just maybe we could have intervened in a way that would have rolled up this plot,” Ben-Veniste told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

Rice testified that the administration received many indications that al-Qaida was dangerous, but she maintained that the warnings were not specific enough to act upon.

“‘There will be a very, very, very big uproar. There will be attacks in the near future,’” she said, characterizing intelligence information before Sept. 11, 2001. “Troubling, yes. But they don’t tell us when. They don’t tell us where.”

But while repeating the administration’s contention that the attacks could not have been prevented, Rice acknowledged that the United States was ill-prepared for the terrorist strikes before Sept. 11, 2001.

“Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing,” Rice said in testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

In her opening statement, Rice offered no apology for failing to prevent the attacks, as Bush’s top former counterterrorism adviser, Richard 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 alternated between defending the administration’s response to warnings that terrorists were planning a “big event” and arguing that previous administrations, notably the Clinton administration, share responsibility for failing to take pre-emptive action.

Bush “understood the threat, and he understood its importance,” she said.

The president “made clear to me that he did not want to respond to al-Qaida one attack at a time. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies,’” Rice said, implicitly rejecting claims made last month by Clarke.

Testy exchange with Kerrey
Rice’s comment about “swatting flies” drew a sharp response from Democratic former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who has been the harshest critic of the administration during the commission’s public hearings. He noted that the administration did not respond militarily to the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 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.”

Kerrey used the hearing to reveal for the first time what the presidential brief said, reading from the document: “The FBI indicates patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking.”

Rice responded, “And that was checked out, and steps were taken through FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] circulars to warn of hijackings.”

Rice added that the brief mentioned conventional hijackings, not the possibility that planes would be used as weapons.

The two did provide one of the few light moments of the morning when Rice corrected Kerrey, who mistakenly addressed her several times as “Dr. Clarke.”

“Sir, with all respect, I don’t think I look like Dick Clarke,” she said.

“Dr. Rice, excuse me,” Kerrey replied.

‘America’s response ... was insufficient’
Rice also directly challenged one of the claims made by Clarke, who has said 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 Iraqi connection to the suicide hijackings, Rice said she did not recall such a discussion but added, “I’m quite certain the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts.”

“It is not surprising that the president would say ‘What about Iraq?’” she said. When Bush’s top advisers met after Sept. 11, none recommended action against Iraq before taking military action against Afghanistan, she said.

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 aides came to her within days and reported that there had been memos about that possibility, but she said she had not seen them.

The implicit breakdown in communication was a theme in Rice’s testimony.

Acknowledging that “America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,” Rice argued that the Clinton administration did not act on recommendations Clarke put forth urging forceful action against al-Qaida, the terror network led by bin Laden, which is believed to have been responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Many of these ideas had been deferred by the last administration, and some had been on the table since 1998,” Rice said.

She specifically blamed communications failures between various federal agencies for making it easier for the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks to escape detection. Senior officials “have to depend on intelligence agencies to tell you what is relevant,” she said.

Rare appearance under oath
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 to Clarke’s explosive allegations. She had met earlier in private for four hours with the commission.

Claire Buchan, a spokeswoman for the White House, said Bush watched Rice’s testimony at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he is on vacation. He called Rice from his pickup truck to tell her that she did a “great job,” Buchan said.

Beforehand, the White House tried to portray the importance of the hearing as overstated.

“We have every level of confidence in our actions before 9/11 and particularly our actions afterward,” White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said before Rice testified. “We don’t believe the stakes are as high as people are suggesting them to be.”

The commission met in private with former President Bill Clinton later in the day, it said in a statement that praised Clinton for being “forthcoming and responsive.”

“I thought it was tremendously helpful,” former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, a Republican member of the commission, said Thursday night on CNBC’s “Capitol Report.”

“He was totally forthcoming,” Gorton added. “He answered our questions very well. It was a very productive four hours.”

The commission said Wednesday that it had requested about 1,000 pages of Clinton administration counterterror documents held by the White House that Bush aides had not released because of “inadvertent” error or because they were not originally requested by the panel.

Lawyers for the commission reviewed 10,800 pages of classified documents from the Clinton administration this week after Bruce Lindsey, who was Clinton’s legal adviser, said officials did not turn over all of Clinton’s records.

A private joint meeting with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney has yet to be scheduled by the panel, which will issue a final report in July.

FBI representatives are scheduled to go before the commission when its hearings resume next week. A member of the commission told NBC News on condition of anonymity that those sessions could be critical to unraveling what went wrong, saying, “Of all the bureaucracies that failed us, and there were many, the FBI was the worst.”