- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2004

Under contentious questioning, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified today “there was no silver bullet that could have prevented” the deadly terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and disputed suggestions that President Bush failed to focus on the threat of strikes in advance.

Bush “understood the threat, and he understood its importance,” she told a national commission investigating the worst terror attacks in the nation’s history.

In nearly three hours in the witness chair, Rice stoutly defended Bush when Democrats on the commission raised questions based on an Aug. 6 classified memo titled “Bin Laden determined to attack inside United States.”

Her appearance, televised nationally, also contained a series of implicit and explicit rebuttals to a series of politically damaging charges made two weeks ago by former terrorism aide Richard Clarke.

Unlike Clarke, Rice offered no apology for the failure to prevent the attacks. Instead, with relatives of the Sept. 11 victims inside the packed hearing room, she said, “as an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt.”

White House officials said Bush and his wife Laura, at home on their Texas ranch, watched Rice’s appearance on television.

The appearance struck sparks on matters of form and substance.

Several Democrats urged Rice to keep her answers shorter, saying their time for questions was limited.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission, first raised the issue of the classified memo, saying it reported that “preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States.”

Rice described it differently. “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,” she said.

Thomas Kean, the commission’s Republican chairman, said at hearing’s end the commission has asked the White House to have to document declassified.

Relatives of the victims applauded at several points when former Sen. Bob Kerrey and others challenged Rice’s testimony. Her turn in the witness chair over, Bush’s aide shook hands with several of relatives, telling one she was sorry for her loss.

Rice said the president came into office determined to develop a “more robust” policy to combat al-Qaida. “He 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’,” she told the commission delving into the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the twin World Trade Center towers in New York and blasted a hole in the Pentagon.

But she also said, “Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing.”

Her comment about swatting flies drew a sharp response from Kerrey, a Democrat, who noted the administration made no military response to a 2000 attack on the USS Cole that took place before Bush took office.

“Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once … How the hell could he (Bush) be tired,” Kerrey asked. That was a reference to a 1998 missile strike Clinton ordered against suspected terror training camps.

“I think it’s only a figure of speech,” she replied, adding that Bush felt that the CIA was “going after individual terrorists.”

She later said a further “tit for tat” attack may have emboldened the perpetrators, and American interests were better served by a broader response designed to undermine al-Qaida.

Rice was emphatic on one point - that the threat of terrorism had been building for years, and the administration was only in office 233 days before al-Qaida struck.

“The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them,” she said.

“For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,” Rice acknowledged.

“In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” she said.

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 in response to Clarke’s explosive charges.

The former White House aide testified last month that the Bush administration gave a lower priority to combatting terrorism than had former President Clinton, and that the decision to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror. In addition to raising questions about administration attention to the threat of terrorism, his remarks implicitly challenged a key underpinning of Bush’s campaign for re-election.

Clarke, interviewed on ABC, complimented Rice for a “very good job” in her testimony, and challenged her on only one factual point. He said he has asked “several times” to brief Bush on terrorism, while Rice said he had not.

Rice’s appearance first turned contentious when Ben-Veniste pressed her on what was known about the terrorist threat in advance of the Sept. 11 attacks.

They interrupted one another repeatedly, the interrogator and the witness.

“I would like to finish my point,” she said when he began speaking while she was.

“I didn’t know there was a point,” he replied.

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 that aides came to her within days and said there had been reports or memos about that possibility, but that she hadn’t seen them.

Pointing a finger of blame, she said that senior officials “have to depend on intelligence agencies to tell you what is relevant.”

She also directly challenged one of the claims made by Clarke, who said earlier that 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 Iraq connection to the suicide hijackings, Rice said she did not recall such a discussion but that “I’m quite certain the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts.”

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

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