WASHINGTON – Condoleezza Rice emphatically assigned blame for the pre-Sept. 11 failures on "frustratingly vague" U.S. intelligence, setting the stage for the top men at the CIA and FBI to explain next week what went wrong and what's been done to fix it.
In a long-anticipated public appearance, President Bush's national security adviser on Thursday repeatedly cited flaws in U.S. intelligence agencies for hampering the administration's ability to foresee or stop the deadly suicide hijackings.
And she cautioned that while the FBI and CIA have made marked improvements since Sept. 11, 2001, the job is not complete.
"I really don't believe that all of our work is done, despite the tremendous progress that we've made thus far," Rice testified to the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
• Raw Data: Full Hearing Transcript
Next week, the bipartisan panel will examine law enforcement and intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, with scheduled testimony from Attorney General John Ashcroft (search), CIA Director George Tenet (search) and FBI Director Robert Mueller (search), as well as from former FBI Director Louis Freeh (search) and former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard (search).
"This hearing will focus on four important questions," commission chairman Thomas Kean said. "How was our government structured before 9-11 to address the terrorist threat inside the United States? What was the threat in 2001 and our government's response to it? How did the intelligence community address the threat? What reforms have been taken since 9-11 to respond to the terrorist threat inside the United States?"
"These questions are at the core of the commission's mandate," he said.
Kean also said the 10-member commission hoped the White House would publicly release by next week an Aug. 6, 2001, classified memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
At the panel's request, the White House said it soon would declassify the intelligence briefing, which was given to Bush just weeks before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Democratic commissioners sharply questioned Rice as to why the memo didn't spark immediate action against Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization headed by Usama bin Laden.
Rice said the document was "historical information based on old reporting" with no specific intelligence information regarding an impending attack.
She cited other intelligence chatter picked up during the spring and summer of 2001 that she called "frustratingly vague" — "Unbelievable news in coming weeks. Big event ... there will be a very, very, very very big uproar."
"Troubling yes. 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 told the commissioners.
Next week's hearing also will highlight poor communication among the intelligence and law enforcement groups.
Among the missed signals was a July 2001 memo by a Phoenix-based FBI agent warning that Al Qaeda terrorists might have been undergoing flight training at U.S. schools and the August 2001 arrest of student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui (search) on immigration charges. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiring in the attacks.
The CIA also failed to share information about two of the future hijackers after they were spotted attending an Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia in January 2000.
"The director of central intelligence and I think Director Freeh had an excellent relationship," Rice testified. "They were trying hard to bridge that seam.
"But 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," she said. "And it just made it very hard to have all of the pieces come together."
Rice's testimony, under oath and on live national television, came after weeks of White House resistance. Bush yielded after repeated public requests from members of the commission that an on-the-record rebuttal was needed in response to explosive charges from former White House counterterror chief Richard Clarke.
Clarke told the commission last month that the Bush administration gave a lower priority to combatting terrorism than had former President Clinton, and that the decision to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror.
Rice responded that Bush "understood the threat and he understood its importance." She said Bush came into office determined to develop a "more robust" policy to combat Al Qaeda and told his national security adviser he was "tired of swatting at flies."
Picking up on her testimony, commissioner Bob Kerrey (search), a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, noted that Bush failed to order a military strike in response to an attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 U.S. sailors three months before Bush took office.
"Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once. ... How the hell could he [Bush] be tired?" Kerrey asked. That was a reference to a 1998 missile strike Clinton ordered against suspected terror training camps in Afghanistan.
Rice said the administration decided not to respond "tit for tat" with an inadequate response that that would simply embolden terrorists.
After hearing from Rice, the commission met with Clinton for more than three hours. A person familiar with the session said on condition of anonymity that the former president discussed his terrorism policies and his decision not to retaliate for the Cole attacks.
The person familiar with Clinton's testimony said Clinton told the panel he did not order retaliatory military strikes after the USS Cole was bombed in the autumn of 2000 because he could not get "a clear, firm judgment of responsibility" from U.S. intelligence before he left office the following January.
U.S. intelligence determined Al Qaeda sponsored the attack only after the Bush administration took office.