The Rice testimony

April 09, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The first question that came to mind after hearing National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission is why President Bush wasted so much time putting her on the stand.

Her appearance didn't satisfy all questions about his response to the 2001 terrorist attacks or get him out of the woods. But her sure-footed navigation of the commission's long interrogation showed her to be a confident and highly knowledgeable defender of his actions before and after terrorism's worst day in America.

As a rebuttal to contrary testimony from the administration's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, Ms. Rice offered a detailed argument that the president did recognize the al-Qaida threat as urgent in the seven months of his presidency before Sept. 11, 2001.

In crisp if often bureaucratic jargon, she plowed through her defense with the determination of a hard-driving fullback; she was not going to be deterred by some panelists who insisted on brief, direct answers. At one point, in fact, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, seeking to make the most of his allotted time for questioning, told her: "Please don't filibuster me."

Ms. Rice argued that without the 9/11 wake-up call the country never would have shifted into high gear against terrorism, while insisting, "There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks."

On that point, however, she ran into at least one barrier that some members of the commission seem likely to raise higher in further testimony of other administration witnesses.

She was interrogated aggressively on a classified Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, which commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean wants the White House to make public, that apparently raised suggestions about possible terrorist attacks on the United States.

She said the memo warned of no such threats, but Mr. Kerrey indicated it referred to "patterns of suspicious activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijacking."

At issue is the concern of some panelists that awareness of al-Qaida cells in this country, including men who took flight training here, could have been a "silver bullet" that could have disrupted the 9/11 plot had the FBI and CIA had better communication between them. Mr. Kerrey suggested that had it been known, "the conspiracy could have been rolled up."

Ms. Rice scoffed at the notion, but did acknowledge that "structural" problems and public fears of domestic spying were long-standing impediments to better use of intelligence.

The nub of her defense was that the new Bush administration kept in place the Clinton administration antiterrorist policy in the days leading up to 9/11 while working on a broader approach intended to "eliminate" rather than just "roll up" the al-Qaida network.

But Mr. Clarke had testified that the Bush team had done nothing substantially different at the time of the attacks, and another Democratic panelist, former Clinton Justice Department official Jamie S. Gorelick, said she saw "no practical difference" between the two plans.

After Ms. Rice, in describing the new Bush approach, said the president had told her he was "tired of swatting flies," Mr. Kerrey asked her: "Can you tell me an example when the president swatted a fly when it came to al-Qaida prior to 9/11?" After the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (late in the Clinton presidency), he asked, "Why didn't we swat that fly?"

It also fell to the combative Mr. Kerrey to mention the elephant in the room - the ongoing war in Iraq, which is beyond the scope of the commission's mandate. He said the United States was using military operations that were "dangerously off track" and were "going to do a number of things, and they're all bad."

But the commission hewed pretty much to its task of seeking what was and wasn't done in the months leading up to 9/11, with only brief questions about Mr. Clarke's testimony that Mr. Bush was more concerned about Iraq than al-Qaida at the time. Ms. Rice denied it, leaving that question presumably for the president to answer when he appears before the commission privately with Vice President Dick Cheney.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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