National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the September 11 commission yesterday that the White House completed work on its first major national-security policy directive on Sept. 4, 2001, and that the topic was “not Russia, not missile defense, not Iraq, but the elimination of al Qaeda.”
Miss Rice, the first sitting national security adviser to testify publicly under oath, fielded tough and often contentious questions in the highly anticipated hearing.
The Bush administration, from its first days in office, began work on a more aggressive policy to “eliminate al Qaeda” rather than just respond to its provocations tit for tat, as was the policy during President Clinton’s two terms, Miss Rice said.
“President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance,” Miss Rice said. “He made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies.’ ”
Democrats on the commission implied in their questioning that the Bush administration failed to heed warnings about an imminent attack by al Qaeda throughout the summer of 2001 — the thesis of a book by former Rice subordinate Richard A. Clarke.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a longtime high-powered Democratic lawyer, grilled Miss Rice about an Aug. 6, 2001, memo to the president that discussed the possibility that Osama bin Laden was planning attacks inside the United States.
Miss Rice said the memo was drafted at the direction of Mr. Bush, who wanted his intelligence services to investigate the possibility of a domestic al Qaeda attack in addition to the suspicion that bin Laden’s terror network was planning a strike at U.S. interests overseas.
“There was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C.,” Miss Rice said. “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.”
Former Rep. Tim Roemer, Indiana Democrat, pointed to another memo, written on Sept. 4, 2001, by Mr. Clarke, that warned that one day “hundreds of Americans” could be laying “dead in the streets due to a terrorist attack and we think there could have been something more we could do.”
Miss Rice said Mr. Roemer was misreading the intent of Mr. Clarke’s memo.
It was a warning, she said, to resist being “dragged down by the bureaucracy” of the intelligence community that had become culturally stagnant and protective in the past two decades and was not a warning of an imminent attack.
“What he was doing was, I think, trying to buck me up so that … I was sufficiently on guard against the kind of bureaucratic inertia that he had fought all of his life,” Miss Rice said.
Adding to the difficulty of stopping the September 11 attacks, Miss Rice said, were legal impediments — now largely remedied by the Patriot Act — that prevented close coordination between the CIA, the FBI and other domestic law-enforcement agencies.
“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,” Miss Rice said. “It just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together.”
Miss Rice said the intelligence reports that the White House received in summer 2001 were “troubling” but “frustratingly vague,” and were not sufficient to take action beyond the presidential directive to government agencies and the airline industry to beef up security and stay alert to acts of terrorism.