`Bush understood threat,' Rice says

National security adviser rebuts counterterror chief

`No silver bullet' to prevent 9/11

Tough queries on memo warning of al-Qaida strike

9/11 Commission

April 09, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, faced tough questioning yesterday from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as she sought to bolster the administration's claim that it was well aware of the threat posed by al-Qaida and did everything it could to prevent the disaster.

Rice said Bush had sought to devise an overall strategy to counter the terrorist threat, including warning signals that the intelligence community was picking up in the summer of 2001, but insisted that there was "no silver bullet" that could have kept the attacks from occurring.

"We moved to develop a new and comprehensive strategy to eliminate the al-Qaida terrorist network," Rice told the 10- member commission. "President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance."

Some of the most contentious queries centered on an Aug. 6, 2001, classified briefing paper, known as a Presidential Daily Brief and titled, as Rice revealed under questioning, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

The document contains what Rice said was "historical" information that did not provide intelligence the Bush administration could have acted on, a point several commission members disputed. Commissioners said after the hearing that they would urge the White House to declassify it so the public could judge for itself.

Much of Rice's three-hour appearance served to challenge statements by Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, who testified two weeks ago that the president was so focused on Iraq that he didn't recognize the growing threat posed by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

Unlike Clarke, Rice did not apologize to family members of those killed in the attacks or acknowledge that any mistakes were made.

She said only, "As an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt. Nor will I forget the courage and resilience of the American people."

The hearing was one of the most dramatic for the commission, with Rice fighting to hold her own against Democratic commissioners and an overflow crowd often bursting into applause at panel members' questions. The president refused for weeks to allow Rice to testify publicly before the committee, claiming executive privilege, but finally bowed to intense public pressure.

White House officials said Bush and his wife watched Rice from their ranch in Texas. After she finished, he called her to say she had done "a great job." White House spokesman Claire Buchan said the president thought that Rice had spelled out "the responsible actions the administration took before Sept. 11 and the aggressive actions the administration took after Sept. 11."

Later in the day, the commission met for more than three hours behind closed doors with former President Bill Clinton and said he was "forthcoming and responsive to questions." Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are to be questioned soon, also in private, as is Clinton's vice president, Al Gore.

Point-counterpoint

Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste changed the tone of what had begun as a relatively harmonious hearing as he questioned Rice on whether she knew in the summer of 2001 that al-Qaida cells were operating in the United States.

Rice said the Aug. 6 briefing paper and a separate memo from Clarke had told her there were, but she said that her staff had told her the FBI was pursuing the issue and there was no recommendation to her for further action.

As Ben-Veniste continued to press, he and Rice repeatedly attempted to talk over one another.

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

"I didn't know there was a point," he snapped back.

`Swatting flies'

Rice also faced tough questions from commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who chided Rice for repeating a phrase the commission has heard several times from witnesses, that Bush was "tired of swatting flies" when it came to al-Qaida and had decided instead to develop a comprehensive strategy.

"We only swatted a fly once, on the 20th of August in 1998," Kerrey said, referring to missile strikes on an al-Qaida camp ordered by then-President Clinton in retaliation for deadly bombings that year on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"We didn't swat any flies afterward," he said. "How the hell could he be tired?"

Rice said it was "a figure of speech" that referred to having targeted individual terrorists rather than the entire organization. The more Rice gave lengthy answers, the more Kerrey attempted to cut her off, saying she was purposely trying to run out the clock.

"Please don't filibuster me," he said. "It's not fair. I have been polite. I have been courteous."

A `robust' plan

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