State Department officials acknowledged late Monday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at a 2001 meeting where she was reportedly warned of the need to act on an impending terrorist threat to the United States.
They said she met with then-CIA Director George J. Tenet on or around July 10. A new book by Bob Woodward says she brushed off Tenet’s warning at that session.
Earlier on Monday, Rice rejected the book’s suggestion as “incomprehensible.”
Speaking to reporters on her plane en route to the Middle East, Rice insisted she did not recall. Tenet and his counterterrorism chief seeking a special meeting with her to try to mobilize more vigorous anti-terror action, as Woodward writes in “State of Denial.”
“The idea that I would have ignored that, I find incomprehensible,” Rice told reporters late Sunday during the flight. “I am quite certain that it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack, and refused to respond.”
The State Department said Monday that a meeting around the time described by Woodward had in fact taken place, based on government records, but that no new information was given to Rice, who then was President Bush’s national security advisor.
In his book, Woodward writes that Tenet and J. Cofer Black, then director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, decided on July 10, 2001, that they had to request a dramatic, “out-of-cycle” meeting with Rice to describe their anxiety over the chance of an attack against American interests, possibly within the United States.
Rice agreed to see them and acknowledged their warnings, but Tenet and Black felt she did not appreciate the gravity of the situation, which Woodward writes was the “starkest warning” yet given to the White House. “She was polite, but they felt the brush-off,” Woodward writes.
Rice’s reaction to the description of the meeting underscores administration attempts to counter claims, in Woodward’s book and elsewhere, that question whether officials heeded internal warnings and reports on terrorism and the Iraq war.
Rice did not deny that any meeting took place, noting she met frequently with Tenet and other intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts during 2001, when she said the administration was developing a comprehensive strategy. But she said the idea of an emergency meeting designed to “shock” her did not make sense.
On Monday, two State Department officials delving into records at Rice’s request found that a meeting took place “on or around July 10,” as the book reports, said Curtis Cooper, a State Department spokesman. But the officials said that the meeting did not reveal any new threats, and that records about the meeting had been turned over to the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, Cooper said. Woodward’s book indicates that the Sept. 11 commission had access to the records of the meeting, but did not probe deeply into it.
Cooper said Tenet was asked by Sept. 11 commission members about the meeting. Cooper could not say whether the discussion took place in the commission’s public sessions or in private. In public, no commissioner referred to a meeting on July 10. One commission member, Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic House member from Indiana, said over the weekend that commissioners had not been told about the meeting.
One of the officials probing meeting records at Rice’s request was Philip D. Zelikow, the former Sept. 11 commission executive director whom Rice appointed State Department counselor last year.
Zelikow and State Department legal advisor John Bellinger reported that the information Tenet presented consisted of “threat reporting” from several weeks leading up to the meeting. “The information presented at this meeting was not new,” Cooper said.
Rice told reporters that she was meeting regularly during the period with Tenet and Black, and they were getting a “steady stream” of intelligence reports warning of potential strikes. “I was talking to George about them all the time,” she said.
Rice also denied that she had complained to Bush that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was not returning her calls, as Woodward writes.
“Secretary Rumsfeld has never refused to return my phone calls -- this is ludicrous,” she said.
She denied that she tried to convince Bush to dump Rumsfeld, as the book says, though she said at one point she told Bush “that maybe all of us should go” after the demands of two wars, the aftermath of Sept. 11 and other world developments.
Rice said her five-day Mideast trip is aimed at trying to persuade moderate Arab states to do more to help democratic leaders in the region. She said she may meet Friday in London with ministers of the other world powers trying to convince Iran to suspend its uranium program.