Transcript: Rice's Testimony on 9/11
The question that the president was asked by Mr. Woodward was, "Did you want to have bin Laden killed before September 11th?" That was the question.
The president said, "Well, I hadn't seen a plan to do that. I knew that we needed to -- I think the appropriate word is 'bring him to justice.' And, of course, this is something of a trick question in that notion of self-defense which is appropriate for..."
I think you can see here a president struggling with whether he ought to be talking about pre-9/11 attempts to kill bin Laden. And so, that is the context for this quote.
And, quite frankly, I remember the director sitting here and saying he didn't want to talk about authorities on assassination. I think you can understand the discomfort of the president.
The president goes on. When Bob Woodward says, "Well, I don't mean it as a trick question; I'm just trying to your state of mind," the president says, "Let me put it this way. I was not -- there was a significant difference in my attitude after September 11th. I was not on point, but I knew he was a menace and I knew he was a problem. I knew he was responsible. We felt he was responsible for bombings that had killed Americans. And I was prepared to look at a plan that would be a thoughtful plan that would bring him to justice and would have given the order to do just that.
"I have no hesitancy about going after him, but I didn't feel that sense of urgency and my blood was not nearly as boiling. Whose blood was nearly as boiling prior to September 11th?"
And I think the context helps here.
It is also the case that the president had been told by the director of central intelligence that it was not going to be a silver bullet to kill bin Laden, that you had to do much more.
And, in fact, I think that some of us felt that the focus, so much focus, on what you did with bin Laden, not what you did with the network, not what you did with the regional circumstances, might, in fact, have been misplaced.
So I think the president is responding to go a specific set of questions.
All that I can tell you is that what the president wanted was a plan to eliminate al Qaeda so he could stop swatting at flies. He knew that we had in place the same crisis-management mechanism, indeed the same personnel, that the Clinton administration, which clearly thought it a very high priority, had in place.
And so, I think that he saw the priority as continuing the current operations and then getting a plan in place.
Now, as to the number of PCs. I'm sorry, there is some difference in our records here.
We show 33 Principals Committee meetings during this period of time, not 100. We show that three of those dealt at least partially with issues of terrorism not related to al Qaeda. And so we can check the numbers, but we have looked at our files and we show 33, not 100.
The quotes by others about how the process is moving, again, it's important to realize that had parallel tracks here. We were continuing to do what the Clinton administration had been doing under all the same authorities that were operating. George Tenet was continuing to try to disrupt al Qaeda. We were continuing the diplomatic efforts.
But we did want to take the time to get in place a policy that was more strategic toward al Qaeda, more robust. It takes some time to think about how to reorient your policy toward Pakistan. It takes some time to think about how to have a more effective policy toward Afghanistan. It particularly takes some time when you don't get your people on board for several months.
So I understand that there are those who have said they felt it wasn't moving along fast enough. I talked to George Tenet about this at least every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. How can we move forward on the Predator? What do you want to do about the Northern Alliance? So I think we were putting the energy into it.
And I should just make one other point, Mr. Hamilton, if you don't mind, which is that we also moved forward on some of the specific ideas that Dick Clarke had put forward prior to completing the strategy review. We increased assistance to Uzbekistan, for instance, which had been one of the recommendations. We moved along the armed Predator, the development of the armed Predator. We increased counterterrorism funding.
But there were a couple of things that we did not want to do.
I'm now convinced that, while nothing that 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, because it was very Northern Alliance-focused. That was going to cause a huge problem with Pakistan. It was not going to put us in the center of action in Afghanistan, which is the south.
And so, we simply had to take some time to get this right. But I think we need not confuse that with either what we did during the threat period where we were urgently working the operational issues every day or with the continuation of the Clinton policy.
HAMILTON: Well, I thank you for a careful answer.
Another question. At the end of the day, of course, we were unable to protect our people. And you suggest in your statement -- and I want you to elaborate on this, if you want to -- that in hindsight it would have been -- better information about the threats would have been the single -- the single most important thing for us to have done, from your point of view, prior to 9/11, would have been better intelligence, better information about the threats.
Is that right? Are there other things that you think stand out?
RICE: Well, Mr. Chairman, I took an oath of office on the day that I took this job to protect and defend. And like most government officials, I take it very seriously. And so, as you might imagine, I've asked myself a thousand times what more we could have done.
I know that, had we thought that there was an attack coming in Washington or New York, we would have moved heaven and earth to try and stop it. And I know that there was no single thing that might have prevented that attack.
In looking back, I believe that the absence of light, so to speak, on what was going on inside the country, the inability to connect the dots, was really structural. We couldn't be dependent on chance that something might come together.
And the legal impediments and the bureaucratic impediments -- but I want to emphasize the legal impediments. To keep the FBI and the CIA from functioning really as one, so that there was no seam between domestic and foreign intelligence, was probably the greatest one.
The director of central intelligence and I think Director Freeh had an excellent relationship. They were trying hard to bridge that seam. I know that Louis Freeh had developed legal attaches abroad to try to help bridge that.
But when it came right down to it, this country, for reasons of history and culture and therefore law, had an allergy to the notion of domestic intelligence, and we were organized on that basis. And it just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together.
We've made good changes since then. I think that having a Homeland Security Department that can bring together the FAA and the INS and Customs and all of the various agencies is a very important step.
I think that the creation of the terrorism threat information center, which brings together all of the intelligence from various aspects, is a very important step forward.
Clearly, the Patriot Act, which has allowed the kind of sharing, indeed demands the kind of sharing between intelligence agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, is a very big step forward.
I think one thing that we will learn from you is whether the structural work is done.
HAMILTON: Final question would be: One of your sentences kind of jumped out at me in your statement, and that was on page 9, where you said, "We must address the source of the problem."
I'm very concerned about that. I was pleased to see it in your statement. And I'm very worried about the threat of terrorism, as I know you are, over a very long period of time -- a generation or more.
There are a lot of very, very fine -- 2 billion Muslims. Most of them, we know, are very fine people. Some don't like us; they hate us. They don't like what modernization does to their culture. They don't like the fact that economic prosperity has passed them by. They don't like some of the policies of the United States government. They don't like the way their own governments treat them.
And I'd like you to elaborate a little bit, if you would, on how we get at the source of the problem. How do we get at this discontent, this dislocation, if you would, across a big swathe of the Islamic world?
RICE: I believe very strongly, and the president believes very strongly, that this is really the generational challenge. The kinds of issues that you are addressing have to be addressed, but we're not going to see success on our watch.
We will see some small victories on our watch. One of the most difficult problems in the Middle East is that the United States has been associated for a long time, decades, with a policy that looks the other way on the freedom deficit in the Middle East, that looks the other way at the absence of individual liberties in the Middle East.
And I think that that has tended to alienate us from the populations of the Middle East.
And when the president, at White Hall in London, said that that was no longer going to be the stance of the United States, we were expecting more from our friends, we were going to try and engage those in those in those countries who wanted to have a different kind of Middle East, I believe that he was resonating with trends that are there in the Middle East. There are reformist trends in places like Bahrain and Jordan. And recently there was a marvelous conference in Alexandria in Egypt, where reform was actually was on the agenda.
So it's going to be a slow process. We know that the building of democracy is tough. It doesn't come easily. We have our own history. When our Founding Fathers said, "We the people," they didn't mean me. It's taken us a while to get to a multiethnic democracy that works.
But if America is avowedly values-centered in its foreign policy, we do better than when we do not stand up for those values.
So I think that it's going to be very hard. It's going to take time.
One of the things that we've been very interested, for instance, in is issues of educational reform in some of these countries. As you know, the madrassas are a big difficulty. I've met, myself, personally two or three times with the Pakistani -- a wonderful woman who's the Pakistani education minister.
We can't do it for them. They have to have it for themselves, but we have to stand for those values.
And over the long run, we will change -- I believe we will change the nature of the Middle East, particularly if there are examples that this can work in the Middle East.
And this is why Iraq is so important. The Iraqi people are struggling to find a way to create a multiethnic democracy that works. And it's going to be hard.
And if we stay with them, and when they succeed, I think we will have made a big change -- they will have made a big change in the middle of the Arab world, and we will be on our way to addressing the source.
HAMILTON: Thank you, Dr. Rice.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
KEAN: Thank you.
BEN-VENISTE: Good morning, Dr. Rice.
RICE: Good morning.
BEN-VENISTE: Nice to see you again.
RICE: Nice to see you.
BEN-VENISTE: I want to ask you some questions about the August 6, 2001, PDB. We had been advised in writing by CIA on March 19, 2004, that the August 6th PDB was prepared and self-generated by a CIA employee. Following Director Tenet's testimony on March 26th before us, the CIA clarified its version of events, saying that questions by the president prompted them to prepare the August 6th PDB.
Now, you have said to us in our meeting together earlier in February, that the president directed the CIA to prepare the August 6th PDB.
The extraordinary high terrorist attack threat level in the summer of 2001 is well-documented. And Richard Clarke's testimony about the possibility of an attack against the United States homeland was repeatedly discussed from May to August within the intelligence community, and that is well-documented.
You acknowledged to us in your interview of February 7, 2004, that Richard Clarke told you that al Qaeda cells were in the United States.
Did you tell the president, at any time prior to August 6th, of the existence of al Qaeda cells in the United States?
RICE: First, let me just make certain...
BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question, because I only have a very limited...
RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but it's important...
BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president...
RICE: ... that I also address...
It's also important that, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you'll just give me a moment.
BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you...
RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but I will...
BEN-VENISTE: ... told the president.
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.
Dick Clarke had told me, I think in a memorandum -- I remember it as being only a line or two -- that there were al Qaeda cells in the United States.
Now, the question is, what did we need to do about that?
And I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al Qaeda cells. I believe in the August 6th memorandum it says that there were 70 full field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this; the FBI was pursuing it.
I really don't remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
RICE: I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don't remember the al Qaeda cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.
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."
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.
BEN-VENISTE: Now, you knew by August 2001 of al Qaeda involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing, is that correct?
You knew that in 1999, late '99, in the millennium threat period, that we had thwarted an al Qaeda attempt to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and thwarted cells operating in Brooklyn, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts.
As of the August 6th briefing, you learned that al Qaeda members have resided or travelled to the United States for years and maintained a support system in the United States.
And you learned that FBI information since the 1998 blind sheikh warning of hijackings to free the blind sheikh indicated a pattern of suspicious activity in the country up until August 6th consistent with preparation for hijackings. Isn't that so?
RICE: Do you have other questions that you want me to answer as a part of the sequence?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, did you not -- you have indicated here that this was some historical document. And I am asking you whether it is not the case that you learned in the PDB memo of August 6th that the FBI was saying that it had information suggesting that preparations -- not historically, but ongoing, along with these numerous full field investigations against al Qaeda cells, that preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States?
RICE: What the August 6th PDB said, and perhaps I should read it to you...
BEN-VENISTE: We would be happy to have it declassified in full at this time, including its title.
RICE: I believe, Mr. Ben-Veniste, that you've had access to this PDB. But let me just...
BEN-VENISTE: But we have not had it declassified so that it can be shown publicly, as you know.
RICE: I believe you've had access to this PDB -- exceptional access. But let me address your question.
BEN-VENISTE: Nor could we, prior to today, reveal the title of that PDB.
RICE: May I address the question, sir?
The fact is that this August 6th PDB was in response to the president's questions about whether or not something might happen or something might be planned by al Qaeda inside the United States. He asked because all of the threat reporting or the threat reporting that was actionable was about the threats abroad, not about the United States.
This particular PDB had a long section on what bin Laden had wanted to do -- speculative, much of it -- in '97, '98; that he had, in fact, liked the results of the 1993 bombing.
It had a number of discussions of -- it had a discussion of whether or not they might use hijacking to try and free a prisoner who was being held in the United States -- Ressam. It reported that the FBI had full field investigations under way.
And we checked on the issue of whether or not there was something going on with surveillance of buildings, and we were told, I believe, that the issue was the courthouse in which this might take place.
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.
BEN-VENISTE: Well, if you are willing...
RICE: Now, we had already taken...
BEN-VENISTE: If you are willing to declassify that document, then others can make up their minds about it.
Let me ask you a general matter, beyond the fact that this memorandum provided information, not speculative, but based on intelligence information, that bin Laden had threatened to attack the United States and specifically Washington, D.C.
There was nothing reassuring, was there, in that PDB?
RICE: Certainly not. There was nothing reassuring.
But I can also tell you that there was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where. This was not a threat report to the president or a threat report to me.
BEN-VENISTE: We agree that there were no specifics. Let me move on, if I may.
RICE: There were no specifics, and, in fact, the country had already taken steps through the FAA to warn of potential hijackings. The country had already taken steps through the FBI to task their 56 field offices to increase their activity. The country had taken the steps that it could given that there was no threat reporting about what might happen inside the United States.
BEN-VENISTE: We have explored that and we will continue to with respect to the muscularity and the specifics of those efforts.
The president was in Crawford, Texas, at the time he received the PDB, you were not with him, correct?
RICE: That is correct.
BEN-VENISTE: Now, was the president, in words or substance, alarmed or in any way motivated to take any action, such as meeting with the director of the FBI, meeting with the attorney general, as a result of receiving the information contained in the PDB?
RICE: I want to repeat that when this document was presented, it was presented as, yes, there were some frightening things -- and by the way, I was not at Crawford, but the president and I were in contact and I might have even been, though I can't remember, with him by video link during that time.
The president was told this is historical information. I'm told he was told this is historical information and there was nothing actionable in this. The president knew that the FBI was pursuing this issue. The president knew that the director of central intelligence was pursuing this issue. And there was no new threat information in this document to pursue.
BEN-VENISTE: Final question, because my time has almost expired.
Do you believe that, had the president taken action to issue a directive to the director of CIA to ensure that the FBI had pulsed the agency, to make sure that any information which we know now had been collected was transmitted to the director, that the president might have been able to receive information from CIA with respect to the fact that two al Qaeda operatives who took part in the 9/11 catastrophe were in the United States -- Alhazmi and Mihdhar; and that Moussaoui, who Dick Clarke was never even made aware of, who had jihadist connections, who the FBI had arrested, and who had been in a flight school in Minnesota trying to learn the avionics of a commercial jetliner despite the fact that he had no training previously, had no explanation for the funds in his bank account, and no explanation for why he was in the United States -- would that have possibly, in your view, in hindsight, made a difference in the ability to collect this information, shake the trees, as Richard Clarke had said, and possibly, possibly interrupt the plotters?
RICE: My view, Commissioner Ben-Veniste, as I said to Chairman Kean, is that, first of all, the director of central intelligence and the director of the FBI, given the level of threat, were doing what they thought they could do to deal with the threat that we faced.
There was no threat reporting of any substance about an attack coming in the United States.
And the director of the FBI and the director of the CIA, had they received information, I am quite certain -- given that the director of the CIA met frequently face to face with the president of the United States -- that he would have made that available to the president or to me.
I do not believe that it is a good analysis to go back and assume that somehow maybe we would have gotten lucky by, quote, "shaking the trees." Dick Clarke was shaking the trees, director of central intelligence was shaking the trees, director of the FBI was shaking the trees. We had a structural problem in the United States.
BEN-VENISTE: Did the president meet with the director of the FBI?
RICE: We had a structural problem in the United States, and that structural problem was that we did not share domestic and foreign intelligence in a way to make a product for policymakers, for good reasons -- for legal reasons, for cultural reasons -- a product that people could depend upon.
BEN-VENISTE: Did the president meet with the director of...
KEAN: Commissioner, we got to move on...
BEN-VENISTE: ... the FBI between August 6th and September 11th?
KEAN: ... to Commissioner Fielding.
RICE: I will have to get back to you on that. I am not certain.
KEAN: Commissioner Fielding?
FIELDING: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Dr. Rice, good morning.
RICE: Good morning.
FIELDING: Thank you for being here, and thank you for all your service presently and in the past to your country.
RICE: Thank you.
FIELDING: As you know, our task is to assemble facts in order to inform ourselves and then ultimately to inform the American public of the cause of this horrible event, and also to make recommendations to mitigate against the possibility that there will ever be another terrorist triumph on our homeland or against our people.
And as we do this with the aid of testimony of people like yourself, of course there will be some discrepancies, as there always will, and we will have to try as best we can to resolve those discrepancies. And obviously that's an important thing for us to do.
But as important as that ultimately might be, it also is our responsibility to really come up with ways, and valid ways, to prevent another intelligence failure like we suffered. And I don't think anybody will kid ourselves that we didn't suffer one.
So we must try to look at the systems and the policies that were in place and to evaluate them and to see -- getting a view of the landscape, and I know it's difficult to do it through a pre-9/11 lens, but we must try to do that, so that we can do better the next time.
And I'd like to follow up with a couple of areas with that sort of specificity, and one is the one that you were just discussing with Commissioner Ben-Veniste.
We've all heard over the years the problem between the CIA, the FBI, coordination, et cetera. And you made reference to an introduction you'd done to a book, but you also, in October 2000, while you were a part of the campaign team for candidate Bush, you told a radio station, WJR, which is in Detroit, you're talking about the threat and how to deal with al Qaeda.
And if I may quote, you said, "Osama bin Laden, the first is you really have to get intelligence agencies better organized to deal with the terrorist threat to the United States itself. One of the problems that we have is kind of a split responsibility, of course, between the CIA and foreign intelligence and the FBI and domestic intelligence. There needs to be better cooperation, because we don't want to wake up one day and find that Osama bin Laden has been successful on our territory," end of your quote.
Well, in fact, sadly, we did wake up and that did happen.
And obviously, there is a systemic problem.
And what I'd really like you to address right now is what steps were taken by you and the administration, to your knowledge, in the first several months of the administration to assess and address this problem?
RICE: Well, thank you.
We did have a structural problem, and structural problems take some time to address.
We did have a national security policy directive asking the CIA, through the foreign intelligence board, headed by Brent Scowcroft, to review its intelligence activities, the way that it gathered intelligence. And that was a study that was to be completed.
The vice president was, a little later in, I think, in May, tasked by the president to put together a group to look at all of the recommendations that had been made about domestic preparedness and all of the questions associated with that; to take the Gilmore report and the Hart-Rudman report and so forth and to try to make recommendations about what might have been done.
We were in office 233 days. And the kinds of structural changes that have been needed by this country for some time did not get made in that period of time.
I'm told that after the millennium plot was discovered, that there was an after-action report done and that some steps were taken. To my recollection, that was not briefed to us during the transition period or during the threat spike.
But clearly, what needed to be done was that we needed systems in place that would bring all of this together. It is not enough to leave this to chance.
If you look at this period, I think you see that everybody -- the director of the CIA -- Louis Freeh had left, but the key counterterrorism person was a part of Dick Clarke's group.
And with meeting with him and, I'm sure, shaking the trees and doing all of the things that you would want people to do, we were being given reports all the time that they were doing everything they could. But there was a systemic problem in getting that kind of shared intelligence.
One of the first things that Bob Mueller did post-9/11 was to recognize that the issue of prevention meant that you had to break down some of the walls between criminal and counterterrorism, between criminal and intelligence.
The way that we went about this was to have individual cases where you were trying to build a criminal case, individual offices with responsibility for those cases. Much was not coming to the FBI in a way that it could then engage the policymakers.
So these were big structural reforms. We did some things to try and get the CIA reforming. We did some things to try and get a better sense of how to put all of this together.
But structural reform is hard, and in seven months we didn't have time to make the changes that were necessary. We made them almost immediately after September 11th.
FIELDING: Well, would you consider the problem as solved today?
RICE: I would not consider the problem solved. I believe that we have made some very important structural changes.
The creation of a Department of Homeland Security is an absolutely critical issue, because the Department of Homeland Security brings together INS and the Customs Department and the border people and all of the people who were scattered -- Customs and Treasury and INS and Justice and so forth -- brings them together in a way that a single secretary is looking after the homeland every day.
He's looking at what infrastructure needs to be protected. He's looking at what state and local governments need to do their work. That is an extremely important innovation.
I hope that he will have the freedom to manage that organization in a way that will make it fully effective, because there are a lot of issues for Congress in how that's managed.
We have created a threat terrorism information center, the TTIC, which does bring together all of the sources of information from all of the intelligence agencies -- the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and the INS and the CIA and the DIA -- so that there's one place where all of this is coming together.
And of course the Patriot Act, which permits the kind of sharing that we need between the CIA and the FBI, is also an important innovation.
But I would be the first to tell you -- I'm a student of institutional change. I know that you get few chances to make really transformative institutional change.
And I think that when we've heard from this commission and others who are working on other pieces of the problem, like, for instance, the issues of intelligence and weapons of mass destruction, that this president will be open to new ideas.
I really don't believe that all of our work is done, despite the tremendous progress that we've made thus far.
FIELDING: Well, I promise you that we're going to respond to that, because that is really a problem that's bothering us, is that it doesn't appear to us, even with the changes up until now, that it's solved the institutional versus institutional issues, which -- maybe it has, but, you know, it's of grave concern to us.
I would also ask -- I don't want to take the time today, but I would ask that you provide our commission, if you would with your analysis on the MI-5 issue. As you know, it's something we're going to have to deal with, and we're taking all information aboard that we may. So we'd appreciate that if you could supply that to us.
RICE: I appreciate that.
I want to be very clear. I think that we've made very important changes. I think that they are helping us tremendously.
Every day now in the Oval Office in the morning, the FBI director and the CIA director sit with the president, sharing information in ways that they would have been prohibited to share that information before.
So very important changes have taken place. We need to see them mature. We need to know how it's working. But we also have to be open to see what more needs to be done.
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