Rice defends efforts before 9/11'No silver bullet' could have averted attacks, she tells panel
Washington Under often aggressive questioning, Condoleezza Rice told the U.S. commission on terrorism Thursday that administration officials were focused in mid-2001 on a feared terror attack abroad, not at home. She insisted that there was ‘‘no silver bullet’’ — no single action or simple remedy — that could have prevented the catastrophic attacks of Sept. 11.
Rice, the national security adviser, made few concessions in comments carefully prepared to present one of the highest-level public defenses by the Bush administration of its pre-9/11 handling of terrorism.
She emphasized systemic U.S. governmental problems that existed when President George W. Bush came into office in January 2001, saying they had made it much harder to find and stop terrorists. Rice said it was unrealistic to think that these could have been removed or resolved in Bush’s first months in office.
‘‘There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks,’’ she said in an appearance that had generated such enormous interest — particularly amid a sharp flare-up in Iraq, which Bush calls part of his post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism — that it was broadcast live by most major networks. The panel later met with former President Bill Clinton, although in closed session.
Rice blamed presidents of both parties for failing to react to a building terrorist threat, but she insisted that Bush had not, for his part, underestimated that threat.
‘‘For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,’’ Rice said. ‘‘Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing.’’ But, she said, ‘‘President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance.’’ Rice remained largely calm and unflappable through the three-hour session, which went a half-hour beyond the period the panel had negotiated with an initially reluctant White House. She was asked repeatedly why the administration had not given the 2001 terror threats higher priority, dealt with them at higher levels and given clearer warnings and directions to government agencies.
Rice faced considerable pressure over a classified briefing Bush received in August 2001 while on vacation at his Texas ranch. Rice had received authorization to share parts of the classified memo with the commission in secret, and to reveal its title publicly: ‘‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.’’
Under tough questioning by two Democratic panel members, Richard Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator, Rice insisted that the briefing was a broad, long-range analysis.
‘‘It did not warn of attacks,’’ she told Ben-Veniste, adding that ‘‘it was historical information.’’ But Ben-Veniste, who was the chief of the Watergate task force, suggested that the briefing covered FBI information on ongoing terrorist preparations ‘‘consistent with hijackings.’’
‘‘There was nothing in this memo,’’ Rice replied, ‘‘that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington D.C.’’ Rice rejected calls from Democrats for its full declassification, however. The refusal appeared to leave a door open for Democratic critics who have said that the possibility that hijacked airplanes might be used in a domestic attack was clearer than the administration has said.
Rice told the panel that it probably would not have made a difference if law-enforcement agencies had worked more aggressively before Sept. 11 in ‘‘shaking the trees’’ to locate potential terrorists. Democrats sharply disagreed. Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said the panel had found no sign that FBI field offices had been given clear directions about pursuing potential terrorists. The FBI messages she had seen, she said, were ‘‘feckless — they don’t tell anybody anything.’’
The bitter wrangling over Sept. 11 appeared sure to continue through this election year. A senior Democratic senator, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, suggested later that the ‘‘trees were not being sufficiently shaken.’’ He told CNN that ‘‘there could have been a prevention’’ of the attacks.
Some panel members suggested that had the Bush administration aggressively demanded fuller information-sharing within the FBI and between the FBI and the CIA — about terror suspects entering the United States and taking flying lessons — the Sept. 11 attacks could have been disrupted.
Rice encountered sometimes withering questions from Democrats. She appeared to withstand it well, however, and occasionally turn the questioning to her advantage.
The session was all the more dramatic because it came after months in which the administration had insisted that as a matter of principle, a top presidential adviser could not be ordered to appear before a panel created by Congress.
Rice came under sometimes tough pressure, but conceded little. Kerrey, in an opening comment, lambasted U.S. policy in Iraq, which he said was making it easier for Al Qaeda to find new recruits. He then asked a series of hard-edged questions about why the Bush administration had not retaliated for the terror attack on the U.S. naval ship Cole in 2000. He repeatedly interrupted Rice’s replies, at one point warning sharply, ‘‘Please don’t filibuster me; it’s not fair.’’ But Rice appeared to catch Kerrey off-guard when she cited a speech he gave shortly after the Cole attack when he said that the best reprisal might be to ‘‘do something about Saddam Hussein.’’ ‘‘I was blown away when I read the speech,’’ she said wryly. ‘‘It was a brilliant speech.’’
The Democratic chairman of the panel, the former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, later complimented her performance. ‘‘She was not in any way vindictive,’’ he told reporters. ‘‘She was constructive.’’
Rice said it would not have been possible for the Bush administration, in its first 233 days, to have accomplished the sweeping changes needed to prevent terrorism, like improving U.S. cooperation with Pakistan, then an ally of the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan.
Nor did she offer anything like the apology to families of Sept. 11 survivors that her former antiterrorism deputy, Richard Clarke, had given.
Instead, she said, ‘‘as an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt.’’
When panel members asked Rice specifically about Clarke, she generally spoke of his expertise in respectful terms. But she also suggested that had all his suggestions on fighting terrorism been followed, ‘‘we might’ve even gone off course.’’ He was not an expert on Afghanistan or Pakistan, she said, crucial areas for putting pressure on Al Qaeda. The panel chairman, Thomas Kean, asked Rice about a fundamental criticism from Clarke, that the incoming Bush administration had given terrorism a lower priority than the Clinton administration had done. In his 2000 presidential campaign, Kean said, Bush never mentioned Al Qaeda. Nor did some Bush administration officials appear to put a high priority on capturing or killing the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden.
The Al Qaeda threat, Rice replied, ‘‘was not new information.’’ Following the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the Cole bombing in Yemen, ‘‘It was on the radar screen of any person who studied or worked in the international field,’’ she said. But Rice said that George Tenet, the CIA chief, had advised Bush that even removing Osama bin Laden ‘‘would help, but would not stop Al Qaeda, nor destroy the network.’’ She thus rejected Clarke’s assertion that in his first briefing to her about Al Qaeda, she appeared not to have heard of the group.
Kean also asked about her statement, on two occasions, that ‘‘we could not have imagined’’ terrorists flying hijacked airplanes into buildings before Sept. 11.
The possibility had been raised in reports on terrorism some years before.
‘‘I probably should have said, I could not have imagined,’’ not ‘‘we,’’ she said.
Rice denied Clarke’s report that in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush and some of his advisers sought to place the blame on Iraq.
It was not surprising, she said, to have supposed that such a wide, deadly and well-coordinated attack had a state sponsor. But after some discussion of Iraq at a strategy meeting at the president’s Camp David retreat, ‘‘from that time on, this was about Afghanistan.’’ "The president never pushed anyone to twist the facts,’’ she said, adding that she did not know or recall whether Bush had strongly suggested to Clarke that he find an Iraq link to the terror attack.
Hamilton asked Rice about a Bush comment, quoted in a book by the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, that he did not feel a ‘‘sense of urgency’’ about terrorism before Sept. 11. Rice replied that the quote, in full context, had been less clear, because the discussion had touched on the possibility of assassinating bin Laden, something outside of U.S. law.
Democratic panel members also asked repeatedly why, as Clarke had described, the administration left it largely to the deputies of the so-called principals —- Bush’s top security advisers —- the management of the terrorist threat.
The Counterterrorism Security Group, or CSG, of which Clarke was a part, "was the nerve center’’ and contained the government’s top counterterrorism experts she said.
While panel members expressed surprise that such an important matter had been left to deputies, who by definition have narrower powers, she said that ‘‘I just don’t believe that bringing the principals over to the White House every day’’ was ‘‘an efficient way to go about this.’’
Transcript of Rice's 9/11 commission statement (CNN)