WASHINGTON – Condoleezza Rice (search) testified Thursday that no "silver bullet" could have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but the national security adviser said President Bush from the beginning wanted to eliminate Al Qaeda.
Also on Thursday, the commission met privately with former President Bill Clinton. The meeting, which followed Rice's testimony, lasted more than 3 hours and the panel said Clinton was forthcoming and responsive to their questions.
Speaking publicly and under oath before the panel investigating the worst terror attacks on the United States, Rice said "structural problems" in U.S. intelligence agencies and a lack of precise information about threats prevented officials from knowing exact details about the impending events.
"So the attacks came," she testified. "A band of vicious terrorists tried to decapitate our government, destroy our financial system and break the spirit of America."
Rice's much-anticipated appearance comes after the testimony of several high-ranking Bush and Clinton administration officials. After weeks of saying it wouldn't allow Rice to testify, citing separation of powers concerns, the White House conceded to the panel's calls for her to publicly appear.
That move was in part to rebut claims by former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke (search), who said the Bush White House didn't take the Al Qaeda threat seriously enough.
"I do not believe there was a lack of high level attention, the president was paying attention to this, how much higher level can you get?" Rice said.
Rice came under heavy fire from Democratic commissioners Richard Ben Veniste and former Rep. Tom Roemer of Indiana about how much Bush was informed of the threat of terror activity leading up to the attacks.
"I think we've all asked ourselves what more could have been done," Rice said. "If we had known an attack was coming against the United States, against New York and Washington, we would have moved heaven and earth to stop it."
Officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations have testified that no matter what actions were or could have been taken leading up to Sept. 11, the attacks still would have happened.
Chatter But No Clear Signal
In the spring and summer of 2001, Rice said the federal government was on a high state of alert but stressed there was no clear indication as to time, place nor manner of attack and most reports focused on Al Qaeda activities outside of the United States, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa.
Some chatter included: "Unbelievable news in coming weeks" … "big event…there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar" … and "there will be attacks in the near future."
But "the United States was effectively blind to what was about to happen to it," she said.
She noted that on Aug. 6, 2001, Bush's intelligence briefing included a response to the president's earlier question about Al Qaeda (search) plans to strike the United States within its borders. There was a reference to an uncorroborated report from 1998 that terrorists may try to hijack a U.S. aircraft to blackmail the government into releasing 1993 World Trade Center bombing terrorists in U.S. custody.
"It did not raise the possibility that terrorist might use airplanes as missiles," Rice said, but "intense" actions were still taken to protect inside U.S. borders in the summer of 2001, including warning overseas embassies and other installations about possible threats and putting U.S. airlines and airport security personnel on alert.
The commission announced that it asked the White House to declassify that Aug. 6 presidential daily briefing, which Rice argued did not contain specific threat information for attacks but had vague references to something that may happen.
"I think all 10 commissioners agree that the Aug. 6 memo should be released," panel vice-chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, told reporters after the briefing. "We think there's nothing in there to compromise the sources or methods of the United States' intelligence … we think it should be released to the American people."
The Iraq Connection?
Clarke had claimed that following the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush pressed him to find an Iraqi connection.
Panel Chairman Thomas H. Kean asked Rice if Bush had "twisted the facts" to make Iraq a focus of military action.
"I don't remember the discussion that Dick Clarke relates," Rice said, adding that, "I'm quite sure the president never pushed anybody to 'twist the facts.'"
But the United States had an "extremely hostile relationship" with Iraq at that time, she said, noting the assassination attempt against former President George H.W. Bush, among other things.
"It was a reasonable question to ask whether indeed Iraq may have been behind this," Rice said.
Bush gathered his advisers at Camp David on Sept. 15-16 to determine the United States' response to the attacks. Questions have arisen as to how much focus was placed on Iraq.
Rice said Bush was worried about possible follow-up attacks on the American people, getting Wall Street operating again and air security.
But "when he [Bush] went around the table and asked his advisers what he should do, not a single one of his principal advisers said to do anything against Iraq, it was all against Afghanistan," Rice said. "From that time on, this was about Afghanistan."
'This Country Simply Was Not on War Footing'
Rice went through a list of events where the United States or Americans were targeted: the 1983 attacks on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
"The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them. For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered and Americans' response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient."
Prior to Sept. 11, "this country simply was not on war footing," she said. "Since then, America has been at war. And under President Bush's leadership, we will remain at war until the terrorist threat to our nation has ended."
The Bush White House has taken many steps, including enacting the USA Patriot Act, Rice said, to better protect the homeland.
"We have to be right 100 percent of the time. They [terrorists] only have to be right once," she said.
"The lesson of Sept. 11 was that the country was not properly structured to deal with the threat that had been gathered for a long period of time. I think we're better structured today than we ever have been."
She also said much damage has been done to Al Qaeda
"I believe that we have really hurt the Al Qaeda network, we have not destroyed it," she said. "I believe we have made it harder for them to attack here. [But] I get up everyday concerned that we haven't made it impossible for them."
After Bush was elected in 2000, Rice said, the Clinton team briefed the incoming staff on national security issues that included Iraq and the Middle East and "we understood that the [Al Qaeda] network posed a serious threat to the United States."
The Bush team continued to pursue Clinton counterterrorism efforts and retained CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Louis Freeh and Clarke, who recently testified before the commission that the Bush administration didn't do enough to deal with the Al Qaeda threat.
Rice noted that Bush received daily intelligence briefings and for the first seven months, heard more than 40 items on Al Qaeda while the White House was developing a new strategy to eliminate the terror network.
Bush "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.'"
The new strategy, focusing on eliminating Usama bin Laden's (search) terror network, was approved on Sept. 4, 2001, and took into account several of Clarke's counterterrorism proposals.
But "not once" did Clarke tell Rice that he didn't think his messages about terrorist threats was getting through to the president, she said.
Prior to Thursday, Rice already talked to the commission for four to five hours in private. Commission members said they wanted the public to hear her perspective.
Next week, two days of public hearings will include testimony from Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno, CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General John Ashcroft.