Al Qaeda a target early, Rice says
James G. Lakely April 9, 2004
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told the September 11 commission yesterday that the White House completed work on its first major national-security policy directive on Sept. 4, 2001, and that the topic was "not Russia, not missile defense, not Iraq, but the elimination of al Qaeda."
Miss Rice, the first sitting national security adviser to testify publicly under oath, fielded tough and often contentious questions in the highly anticipated hearing.
The Bush administration, from its first days in office, began work on a more aggressive policy to "eliminate al Qaeda" rather than just respond to its provocations tit for tat, as was the policy during President Clinton's two terms, Miss Rice said.
"President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance," Miss Rice said. "He made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al Qaeda one attack at a time. He told me he was 'tired of swatting flies.' "
Democrats on the commission implied in their questioning that the Bush administration failed to heed warnings about an imminent attack by al Qaeda throughout the summer of 2001 -- the thesis of a book by former Rice subordinate Richard A. Clarke.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a longtime high-powered Democratic lawyer, grilled Miss Rice about an Aug. 6, 2001, memo to the president that discussed the possibility that Osama bin Laden was planning attacks inside the United States.
Miss Rice said the memo was drafted at the direction of Mr. Bush, who wanted his intelligence services to investigate the possibility of a domestic al Qaeda attack in addition to the suspicion that bin Laden's terror network was planning a strike at U.S. interests overseas.
"There was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington, D.C.," Miss Rice said. "There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where. This was not a threat report to the president or a threat report to me."
Former Rep. Tim Roemer, Indiana Democrat, pointed to another memo, written on Sept. 4, 2001, by Mr. Clarke, that warned that one day "hundreds of Americans" could be laying "dead in the streets due to a terrorist attack and we think there could have been something more we could do."
Miss Rice said Mr. Roemer was misreading the intent of Mr. Clarke's memo.
It was a warning, she said, to resist being "dragged down by the bureaucracy" of the intelligence community that had become culturally stagnant and protective in the past two decades and was not a warning of an imminent attack.
"What he was doing was, I think, trying to buck me up so that ... I was sufficiently on guard against the kind of bureaucratic inertia that he had fought all of his life," Miss Rice said.
Adding to the difficulty of stopping the September 11 attacks, Miss Rice said, were legal impediments -- now largely remedied by the Patriot Act -- that prevented close coordination between the CIA, the FBI and other domestic law-enforcement agencies.
"When it came right down to it, this country, for reasons of history and culture and therefore law, had an allergy to the notion of domestic intelligence, and we were organized on that basis," Miss Rice said. "It just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together."
Miss Rice said the intelligence reports that the White House received in summer 2001 were "troubling" but "frustratingly vague," and were not sufficient to take action beyond the presidential directive to government agencies and the airline industry to beef up security and stay alert to acts of terrorism.
Some of the "chatter" collected by the Bush intelligence team included suspected terrorists saying that there will be "unbelievable news in coming weeks" in a "big event" that will create a "very, very, very, very big uproar" and that "there will be attacks in the near future."
To suggest that the Bush administration should have acted on such information is unfair, Miss Rice said, pointing also to the difficulty of defending against terrorist attacks.
"Let's remember, those charged with protecting us from attack have to succeed 100 percent of the time," Miss Rice said. "To inflict devastation on a massive scale, the terrorists only have to succeed once, and we know they are trying every day."
Miss Rice often found herself sparring with Democrats on the panel, who routinely interrupted her answers -- much harsher treatment than that given to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Mr. Clarke or Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
Senate Republicans said they were disappointed with the tone of yesterday's hearing.
"It's important not to ascribe blame to President Clinton or President Bush," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican. "Unfortunately, in this political year, in this hyperpolitical environment, what we have seen is the politicization of the testimony that has been given, and I think that is deeply unfortunate and very regrettable."
The hearing was interrupted by applause from the audience nine times, all but twice in response to statements or questions by Bush critics on the panel.
Kyle Hence, co-founder of 9/11 CitizensWatch, said he "did not find the testimony of Miss Rice to be credible" and complained about what he sees as conflicts of interests among some of the Republicans on the panel.
"We have great problems with this commission, its integrity," Mr. Hence said. "We feel it's made too many compromises. We do not have confidence in its report that it will do a full and complete accounting of the events of 9/11."
The two leaders of the commission, Democrat Lee Hamilton and Republican Thomas H. Kean, said that partisanship has not tainted the process and that they were pleased with Miss Rice's "historic" decision to testify publicly.
"I was very impressed just to hear from a national security adviser under oath and in public," Mr. Hamilton said, noting that he thought Miss Rice was "very articulate" and well-prepared for the panel's questions.
"I especially appreciated the tone of her statement," Mr. Hamilton said. "She was not in any way vindictive. She was constructive, it was factual, and I think it certainly advanced the understanding of the commission of the facts of the period that we're interested in. And it will be very useful to us in our deliberations."
The commission voted unanimously to urge the White House to declassify the Aug. 6, 2001, memo, which Democrats on the committee say proves the Bush administration was warned about the September 11 attacks.
"We will push very hard," Mr. Hamilton said. The White House has refused so far to release the memo to the public but said yesterday that it was reviewing the panel's request.
The threat posed by al Qaeda was known by the Bush administration from the first day in office, Miss Rice said, and that's why they made the "extraordinary decision" to keep key antiterrorism aides to Mr. Clinton, including Mr. Clarke and the directors of the CIA and FBI.
Mr. Clarke, who served both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, wrote a memo for Miss Rice with his recommendations to deal with al Qaeda. Miss Rice said yesterday the administration implemented those suggestions that it thought were helpful and dispatched him to help formulate a more aggressive antiterror policy than he had devised for Mr. Clinton.
In his testimony to the commission last month, Mr. Clarke testified that even if all his suggestions were followed, the September 11 attacks would not have been stopped.
Miss Rice took that opinion a step further, stating that Mr. Clarke's ideas ultimately would have set back the fight against terrorism.
"I'm now convinced that while nothing in [Mr. Clarke's] strategy would have done anything about 9/11, if we had in fact moved on the things that were in the original memos that we got from our [Clinton] counterterrorism people, we might have even gone off course," Miss Rice said.
Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, opened his questioning of Miss Rice by going off-topic and declaring the war in Iraq a distraction from the larger war on terror.
"The military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they're all bad," Mr. Kerrey said to a round of applause from the audience.
Later in the exchange between the two, Miss Rice noted that after the USS Cole was bombed by al Qaeda in October 2000, Mr. Kerrey's views on toppling Saddam Hussein were quite different.
"I'm aware, Mr. Kerrey, of a speech that you gave at that time that said that perhaps the best thing that we could do to respond to the Cole and to the memories was to do something about the threat of Saddam Hussein," Miss Rice said, using Mr. Kerrey's own words to explain the Bush administration's view of the wider war on terror.
"That's a strategic view," she said. "And we took the strategic view. We didn't take a tactical view. I mean, it was really -- quite frankly I was blown away when I read the speech because it's a brilliant speech."