Rice Defends Pre-9/11 Anti-Terrorism Efforts
U.S. 'Was Not on War Footing,' She Says
By Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 2004; Page A01
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice staunchly defended President Bush's efforts to combat terrorism in a long-awaited appearance yesterday before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, conceding that the government "was not on war footing" but arguing there was no "silver bullet" or specific intelligence that could have prevented the deadly hijackings.
Rice -- whose testimony under oath attracted media coverage from around the world and drew hundreds of onlookers to an overflowing Senate hearing room -- offered a carefully prepared and largely familiar defense of Bush anti-terrorism efforts and chose to focus many of her remarks on the reaction to an unprecedented wave of threat information that flooded the government in the summer of 2001.
"The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them," Rice said near the start of her 20-minute opening statement. "For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America's response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient. . . . Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before September 11th, this country simply was not on war footing."
Rice's testimony, which had been blocked for months by White House lawyers, came in the wake of politically damaging allegations by former counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke, who alleged in testimony and a book last month that the Bush administration had neglected the threat from al Qaeda before the attacks. Rice largely avoided the kind of direct attacks on Clarke's credibility that she had led White House officials in making in television appearances, but she criticized him for not complaining to her about perceived shortcomings and quarreled with some details of his account.
In addition, a new controversy flared yesterday about a classified presidential briefing delivered to Bush on Aug. 6, 2001. The briefing, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S.," has long been characterized by Rice and other Bush officials as a historical summary of suspected al Qaeda plots.
But several Democratic commissioners said in yesterday's hearing that the briefing also includes significant details about suspected al Qaeda sleeper cells and their plans to carry out domestic hijackings. The commission has demanded that the briefing be made public, a step that White House officials said yesterday was likely. "We hope to be able to make it available," communications director Dan Bartlett said.
After Rice's appearance, the 10-member bipartisan panel immediately went into closed session for an interview lasting more than three hours with former president Bill Clinton, officials said. "The Commission found the former President forthcoming and responsive to its questions," the panel said in a statement. The panel, slated to deliver a final report by July 26, is also to interview former vice president Al Gore as well as Bush and Vice President Cheney.
During her testimony, Rice declined to offer the kind of public apology that Clarke delivered during his testimony in front of the same panel on March 24. As scores of survivors of Sept. 11 victims looked on, many carrying pictures of their relatives, Rice said, "We owe it to those that we lost, and to their loved ones and to our country to learn all that we can about that tragic day and the events that led to it."
Rice also repeated her earlier contention that a set of proposals for combating al Qaeda prepared by Clarke on Jan. 25, 2001, did not constitute a plan for action, calling it "a series of ideas." She also defended the administration's pace in crafting an overall strategy to combat al Qaeda -- which was similar to Clarke's proposals and was not approved until Sept. 4, 2001 -- and said the administration wanted to pursue a more aggressive strategy than the Clinton administration.
Rice's generally measured tone toward Clarke yesterday stood in stark contrast to many of the statements made by her and other administration officials in recent weeks. Clarke, who watched her testimony on television, said in an interview that Rice "was trying to de-personalize" their differences and indicated that he would seek to do the same.
The Sept. 11 panel, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was again divided sharply along partisan lines during Rice's appearance, despite attempts by Chairman Thomas H. Kean and the group's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, to soften the political edges.
In contrast with Clarke's appearance two weeks earlier, most of the panel's GOP members treaded softly on Rice, leaving the tougher, and at times confrontational, questioning to the Democrats. Perhaps the tersest exchange came between Rice and former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who angrily told Rice at one point: "Please don't filibuster me. It's not fair." On several occasions, Kerrey also mistakenly referred to Rice as "Dr. Clarke," finally prompting a loud response from the witness.
"I don't think I look like Dick Clarke," Rice said to laughter from the audience.
Kerrey also lambasted Rice for avoiding "the M-word," for "mistakes," and said many of her explanations sounded "like something from a seminar."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rice focused on threat information received in summer 2001.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)