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THE NATION

No Way to Stop 9/11, Rice Says

Bush's top security aide testifies before the panel investigating the attacks. A memo that warned of Bin Laden's intent to strike the U.S. is disclosed.

April 09, 2004|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — National security advisor Condoleezza Rice vigorously defended the Bush administration's handling of terrorist threats in testimony Thursday before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, saying "there was no silver bullet" that could have stopped the plot.

But Rice's testimony came amid disclosures from the commission that President Bush was warned in a highly classified intelligence briefing five weeks before the attacks that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was intent on striking targets on U.S. soil.

The title of the briefing -- "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." -- was revealed Thursday, as were some of its contents, including a warning that the FBI had detected domestic activity "consistent with preparation for hijackings."

The significance of the briefing was the subject of a testy exchange between Rice and a Democrat on the panel, and the hearing ended with commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, calling for the full document to be declassified.

"We feel it is important that the American people get a chance to see it," Kean said. "We are awaiting an answer on our request and hope by next week's hearing that we might have it."

The commission is scheduled to hear testimony Tuesday and Wednesday from top law enforcement officials.

Rice did not directly respond to Kean's request. But in earlier testimony she said the panel had already been granted "exceptional access" to the document. Later Thursday, administration officials said the document would be declassified at an unspecified time.

The hearing, held in a packed chamber on Capitol Hill, combined history and political drama. It marked the first time that Rice, one of Bush's closest advisors, testified publicly about the administration's counterterrorism efforts before the attacks.

It was Rice's opportunity to rebut testimony from former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who said that the Bush administration had largely ignored the terrorist threat during its first eight months in office.

After Rice's testimony, the commission met behind closed doors with former President Clinton for more than three hours. Commission officials described Clinton as "forthcoming," but did not disclose details of the conversation. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are also expected to answer questions in a private session with the commission.

Although Rice's answers were primarily aimed at the 10 members of the bipartisan panel, she also spoke in broad terms to a nation that is still struggling to come to grips with the attacks and that is weighing the administration's performance in the war on terrorism in the context of the upcoming presidential election.

The three-hour session produced heated exchanges between Rice and Democrats on the panel, reflecting deep disagreements over whether the Bush administration recognized the magnitude of the terrorist threat, and whether it did enough to respond to a series of intelligence alarms in the spring and summer before the attacks.

'A Great Job'

Bush and his wife, Laura, watched Rice's testimony from their ranch near Crawford, Texas. Afterward, White House officials said Bush called Rice from his pickup to tell her that she "did a great job."

Rice sought to portray the White House as engaged and acutely aware of the terrorist threat, but that it was exasperated by the "frustratingly vague" intelligence it was getting on Al Qaeda's intentions and hampered by bureaucratic and political obstacles that seemed impassable before the attacks awakened America to terrorist dangers.

Rice ticked off samples of the so-called intelligence chatter that was picked up during the spring and summer before the attacks. "Unbelievable news in coming weeks," one read. "There will be a very, very, very, very big uproar," said another.

"Troubling, yes," Rice said. "But they don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how."

Rice, comparing Sept. 11 to Pearl Harbor and other events that blindsided world leaders, said democratic societies had always been slow to react to gathering threats. "And, tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing," she said.

Although Rice sought to frame her case in broad strokes, she was often on the defensive when discussing the administration's counterterrorism efforts.

Commissioners pressed Rice to explain why the administration did not respond to Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. warship Cole, and why its top national security officials had failed to hold a meeting on counterterrorism until days before the Sept. 11 attacks, despite meeting 33 times to discuss other subjects including China, Russia and missile defense.

Commissioners also presented new information that suggested the Bush administration had more direct and specific warnings about the possibility of domestic terrorist attacks than it had previously acknowledged.

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