WASHINGTON - Without apology or admission of mistakes, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday testified under oath that there was "no silver bullet'' that could have stopped the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, but admitted that an Aug. 6, 2001, classified memo to President Bush was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside United States.''
"The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them," Ms. Rice said near the start of her 20-minute opening statement. "For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America's response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient. ... Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before September 11th, this country simply was not on war footing."
After her statement, Ms. Rice was questioned for 2 1/2 hours before national TV cameras by members of the 10-member bipartisan commission investigating whether the attacks could have been prevented.
Again and again she insisted that the administration did not ignore the threat but said she could not remember if she ever briefed the President on the presence of al-Qaeda sleeper cells within the United States.
She insisted, however, that the nation was not on a "war footing" before the attacks, despite a summer full of intelligence that indicated a major attack was being planned. She pointed out that the administration had been in office only 233 days before the attacks.
"There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks," she said. "I've asked myself a thousand times what more we could have done. I know there was no single thing that might have prevented that attack.''
Republicans yesterday generally contended that Ms. Rice was "articulate" and "forceful" and "candid" and that her testimony helped the administration.
Democrats said she mainly "filibustered" and gave "essay-type" answers that raised even more questions but that members of the commission ran out of their 10-minute allotments without satisfactory answers.
Ms. Rice contradicted a number of assertions made late last month by Richard Clarke, her former deputy and head of counterterrorism for three presidents, who argued that he asked but was never permitted to brief Mr. Bush on the urgency he felt about al-Qaeda. Ms. Rice said that he never asked her to brief the President on that subject.
Mr. Clarke, who apologized to the families for failing them when he testified, told the commission that during the millennium scare when an attack against the Los Angeles airport was prevented, it was a result of all the agencies meeting together in an atmosphere of crisis. Ms. Rice disputed that, saying the attack was averted by one alert Customs agent.
Mr. Clarke said the administration considered terrorism an important but not an urgent matter. Ms. Rice disagreed and disputed Mr. Clarke's assertions that Mr. Bush was told by the CIA there was a threat.
Mr. Clarke said there was no meeting of the national security "principals" or top officials on terrorism. Ms. Rice said that of 33 such meetings, three had some reference to terrorism.
"In hindsight," Ms. Rice said during her opening statement, "if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States - something made very difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies."
Asked why there was no effort to go after al-Qaeda when the CIA finally determined early in the Bush administration that it was responsible for the deadly attack on the USS Cole in December, 2000, she said the President was "tired of swatting at flies.'' She said that meant that he wanted a more "robust" strategy to attack al-Qaeda and that "tit-for-tat" attacks were doing no good and that another might have emboldened al-Qaeda.
Bob Kerrey, a Democrat on the commission and former senator, wondered how Mr. Bush could have been tired when the only fly-swatting was done on Aug. 20, 1998. That was when the Clinton administration hit an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in revenge for attacks on American embassies in Africa.
As commission members pressured her to seek to have the Aug. 6 memo declassified, a step now under consideration by the White House, she insisted that it was not a "warning" memo with actionable intelligence that told where, when, or how attacks would occur. She said it contained "old news" and was an historical examination of the al-Qaeda threat based on questions Mr. Bush had posed about the group and its leader, Osama bin Laden. She said that the intelligence was "frustratingly vague."
Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat and former Watergate prosecutor, said the memo raised the possibility of planes being hijacked and used as weapons. Ms. Rice said it does not.
Ms. Rice, as national security adviser, did not publicly mention al-Qaeda in the eight months before 9/11. Yesterday, she repeatedly blamed "structural problems" in the government for the failure to connect the dots, as some have put it, that would have warned authorities that al-Qaeda members were in the United States taking flight lessons to learn how to fly passengers jets without caring about how to land and take off. She said there were legal impediments that prevented the FBI and the CIA from sharing data that might have alerted top officials to the threat.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.
Ann McFeatters can be reached at:
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