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No Way to Stop 9/11, Rice Says

Times Staff Writer

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice vigorously defended the Bush administration’s handling of terrorist threats in testimony Thursday before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, saying “there was no silver bullet” that could have stopped the plot.

But Rice’s testimony came amid disclosures from the commission that President Bush was warned in a highly classified intelligence briefing five weeks before the attacks that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was intent on striking targets on U.S. soil.

The title of the briefing -- “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” -- was revealed Thursday, as were some of its contents, including a warning that the FBI had detected domestic activity “consistent with preparation for hijackings.”

The significance of the briefing was the subject of a testy exchange between Rice and a Democrat on the panel, and the hearing ended with commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, calling for the full document to be declassified.

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“We feel it is important that the American people get a chance to see it,” Kean said. “We are awaiting an answer on our request and hope by next week’s hearing that we might have it.”

The commission is scheduled to hear testimony Tuesday and Wednesday from top law enforcement officials.

Rice did not directly respond to Kean’s request. But in earlier testimony she said the panel had already been granted “exceptional access” to the document. Later Thursday, administration officials said the document would be declassified at an unspecified time.

The hearing, held in a packed chamber on Capitol Hill, combined history and political drama. It marked the first time that Rice, one of Bush’s closest advisors, testified publicly about the administration’s counterterrorism efforts before the attacks.

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It was Rice’s opportunity to rebut testimony from former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who said that the Bush administration had largely ignored the terrorist threat during its first eight months in office.

After Rice’s testimony, the commission met behind closed doors with former President Clinton for more than three hours. Commission officials described Clinton as “forthcoming,” but did not disclose details of the conversation. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are also expected to answer questions in a private session with the commission.

Although Rice’s answers were primarily aimed at the 10 members of the bipartisan panel, she also spoke in broad terms to a nation that is still struggling to come to grips with the attacks and that is weighing the administration’s performance in the war on terrorism in the context of the upcoming presidential election.

The three-hour session produced heated exchanges between Rice and Democrats on the panel, reflecting deep disagreements over whether the Bush administration recognized the magnitude of the terrorist threat, and whether it did enough to respond to a series of intelligence alarms in the spring and summer before the attacks.

‘A Great Job’

Bush and his wife, Laura, watched Rice’s testimony from their ranch near Crawford, Texas. Afterward, White House officials said Bush called Rice from his pickup to tell her that she “did a great job.”

Rice sought to portray the White House as engaged and acutely aware of the terrorist threat, but that it was exasperated by the “frustratingly vague” intelligence it was getting on Al Qaeda’s intentions and hampered by bureaucratic and political obstacles that seemed impassable before the attacks awakened America to terrorist dangers.

Rice ticked off samples of the so-called intelligence chatter that was picked up during the spring and summer before the attacks. “Unbelievable news in coming weeks,” one read. “There will be a very, very, very, very big uproar,” said another.

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“Troubling, yes,” Rice said. “But they don’t tell us when; they don’t tell us where; they don’t tell us who; and they don’t tell us how.”

Rice, comparing Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor and other events that blindsided world leaders, said democratic societies had always been slow to react to gathering threats. “And, tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing,” she said.

Although Rice sought to frame her case in broad strokes, she was often on the defensive when discussing the administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

Commissioners pressed Rice to explain why the administration did not respond to Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. warship Cole, and why its top national security officials had failed to hold a meeting on counterterrorism until days before the Sept. 11 attacks, despite meeting 33 times to discuss other subjects including China, Russia and missile defense.

Commissioners also presented new information that suggested the Bush administration had more direct and specific warnings about the possibility of domestic terrorist attacks than it had previously acknowledged.

The most significant information centered on the classified briefing -- known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB -- that Bush received from the CIA on Aug. 6, 2001, little more than a month before the attacks.

Although it has been known for some time that Bush received a briefing that day mentioning the possibility that terrorists could seek to hijack aircraft, the title and other details had not been disclosed.

A senior administration official said Thursday that the declassification of the Aug. 6 daily brief would “probably happen in the near future, but not overnight.”

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National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said the White House had “every hope and intention that we’ll be able to declassify” the document. “We’re actively working the declassification process,” he said, adding that it involved multiple government agencies.

During questioning, Rice said, “I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.’ ” A U.S. intelligence official, in an interview with The Times, said the actual title was “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

Rice’s answer came in response to a pointed round of questioning by Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat and former Watergate prosecutor. Ben-Veniste said the commission had, until Thursday, been denied permission by the White House to disclose so much as the title of the briefing, and the bulk of its contents remained classified. Ben-Veniste went on to say that the briefing warned that the FBI had detected “a pattern of suspicious activity in the country, up until Aug. 6, consistent with preparation for hijackings.”

The revelations would seem to contradict long-standing claims by Rice and other Bush administration officials that the intelligence information they had received during the months before Sept. 11 pointed exclusively to attacks on overseas targets.

Rice sought to downplay the significance of the briefing. She said it was prepared by the CIA in response to a request by Bush for information on domestic threats, and that much of its contents were “speculative” or old intelligence.

“It was historical information based on old reporting,” Rice said. “There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.”

Bush was in Crawford when he received the August 2001 briefing, and did not return to Washington until the end of the month.

Rice acknowledged Thursday that she had been told by Richard Clarke in early 2001 that Al Qaeda had sleeper cells in the United States, but said she could not remember whether she had ever shared the information with Bush.

Rice also sparred with commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who pressed her to explain why the administration had not responded militarily to Al Qaeda’s attack of the Cole. The attack was in 2000 but was not definitively linked to Al Qaeda before Bush took office.

‘Swatting at Flies’

Rice said the Bush administration did not want to engage in the sort of “tit-for-tat” response that she said characterized the approach of the Clinton White House. Kerrey chided Rice for her frequent remark that Bush had told her that he was tired of dealing with terrorist threats by “swatting at flies.”

“Can you tell me one example where the president swatted a fly when it came to Al Qaeda prior to 9/11?” Kerrey said. “Why didn’t we respond to the Cole? Why didn’t we swat that fly?”

Rice said the phrase was “simply a figure of speech.” In an indication of how she prepared for her testimony, Rice returned fire by noting that Kerrey had delivered a speech after the Cole attack in which he suggested the U.S. should consider action against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Rice called it “a brilliant speech,” relishing the chance to turn the tables on critics who say the Bush administration was preoccupied with Iraq and too eager to link the Sept. 11 attacks to Hussein.

She also took several shots at Clarke, her former colleague who had been sharply critical of the administration’s handling of the war on terrorism in recent testimony and in his book, “Against All Enemies.” She dismissed his complaint that his pleas for action were ignored, saying “not once during this period” did Clarke complain to her that federal agencies weren’t responding adequately to the warnings that preceded the attacks.

She also challenged the wisdom of a strategy he outlined to confront Al Qaeda in Afghanistan through covert support to the Northern Alliance, then engaged in a civil war with the Bin Laden-supported Taliban government. Rice said that approach would have been the “wrong direction” because it would have antagonized Pakistan, which was then allied with the Taliban.

Rice’s demeanor during the hearing ranged from defiant to defensive.

She repeatedly stressed that any failures to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks were the consequence of “structural” problems within the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies, which the Bush administration did not have an opportunity to solve during its 233 days in office before the strikes.

Rice acknowledged the relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks who attended the hearing, saying, “I thank them for their contributions to the commission’s work.” There had been speculation about whether Rice would apologize to the families, as Clarke had done in his testimony several weeks ago. But Rice avoided striking any note of contrition or acceptance of blame.

Family members had mixed reactions to Rice’s testimony. Debra Burlingame, the sister of one of the pilots of the hijacked planes, praised Rice. She described her testimony as forthright and honest.

“She made it very clear that the problems are systemic problems, that the intelligence and law enforcement agencies broke down,” Burlingame said.

But others were sharply critical of Rice. Stephen Push, a representative of many victims’ families, said Rice was the latest in a long line of government officials who blamed others for not doing enough to prevent the attacks but acknowledged little fault of their own. “I don’t think there’s been enough accountability,” Push said.

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Crawford, Texas, and Maura Reynolds and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Clarke vs. Rice Here is a comparison of testimony and other public statements by Richard Clarke, the Bush administration’s former chief counterterrorism expert, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, regarding key issues related to the Sept. 11 commission’s inquiry:

Richard Clarke:

Q: Did the Bush administration treat terrorism as an urgent threat?

“I tried very hard to create a sense of urgency by seeing to it that intelligence reports on the Al Qaeda threat were frequently given to the president and other high-level officials.... But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don’t think it was ever treated that way.”

Q: Did Rice ignore Clarke’s proposal in January 2001 for a tougher policy?

“The response was that in the Bush administration I should... report to the deputies committee, which is a sub-Cabinet-level committee, and not to the [Cabinet officers].... It slowed [the process] down enormously, by months. First of all, the deputies committee didn’t meet urgently in January or February. Then, when the deputies committee did meet, it took the issue of Al Qaeda as part of a cluster of policy issues.... I was sufficiently frustrated that I asked to be reassigned.”

Q: Should Bush have reacted more strongly to terrorism warnings in the summer of 2001?

In 2000, the Clinton administration “shook the trees to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working together. Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did the president ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the attack? Did Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.”

Q: Was the FBI capable of detecting Al Qaeda activities inside the United States?

“The fact that we didn’t have intelligence that we could point to that said [an attack] would take place in the United States wasn’t significant in my view, because -- frankly, sir, I know how this is going to sound but I have to say it -- I didn’t think the FBI would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States by Al Qaeda.”

Q: Was Clarke prevented from briefing Bush directly on terrorism?

“I asked for a series of briefings on the issues in my portfolio, including counterterrorism.... I was told I could brief the president on terrorism after this policy development process was complete.”

Q: Did Bush ask Clarke to link the 9/11 attack to Iraq?

Clarke (in his book, “Against All Enemies”): President Bush “grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room.... ‘Look,’ he told us, ‘I know you have a lot to do and all.... But I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this.”

Q: Has the war in Iraq diverted resources from the war on terrorism?

“The reason I am strident in my criticism of the president of the United States is because by invading Iraq ... the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.”

Q: Should the Bush administration apologize for its failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks?

“Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn’t matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness.”

***

Condoleezza Rice:

Q: Did the Bush administration treat terrorism as an urgent threat?

“We all had a strong sense that this was a very crucial issue.... But we did want to take the time to get in place a policy that was more strategic towards Al Qaeda, more robust.... I understand that there are those who have said they felt it wasn’t moving along fast enough... [but] I think we were putting the energy into it.”

Q: Did Rice ignore Clarke’s proposal in January 2001 for a tougher policy?

“I talked to Dick Clarke.... Shortly after his memo to me saying that Al Qaeda was a major threat, we set out to try and craft a better strategy. But we were quite cognizant of this group, of the fact that something had to be done.... The fact is that what we were presented on January the 25th was a set of ideas and a paper, most of which was about what the Clinton administration had done.... We decided to take a different track. We decided to put together a strategic approach.”

Q: Should Bush have reacted more strongly to terrorism warnings in the summer of 2001?

Rice (from an interview with CNN, March 24): “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, the director of central intelligence was shaking the trees, the director of the FBI was shaking the trees.”

Q: Was the FBI capable of detecting Al Qaeda activities inside the United States?

“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.... I also understood... that the FBI was pursuing these Al Qaeda cells.... And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this; the FBI was pursuing it.”

Q: Was Clarke prevented from briefing Bush directly on terrorism?

“All that he needed to do was to say, I need time to brief the president on something.... Dick Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism.”

Q: Did Bush ask Clarke to link the 9/11 attack to Iraq?

“I don’t remember the discussion that Dick Clarke relates.... But it’s not surprising that the president would say ‘What about Iraq?’ given our hostile relationship with Iraq. And I’m quite certain that the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts.”

Q: Has the war in Iraq diverted resources from the war on terrorism?

“The Iraqi people are struggling to find a way to create a multiethnic democracy ... and when they succeed, I think 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” of terrorism.

Q: Should the Bush administration apologize for its failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks?

“As an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt.... 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.”


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