JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she offered to resign as President Bush’s National Security Adviser as part of a broader house-cleaning following the president’s re-election in 2004.
"I did tell the president at one point that I thought maybe all of us should go, because we had fought two wars and we ... had the largest terrorist attack in American history," Rice disclosed Sunday night while en route to the Mideast.
"And when he asked me to be secretary of state, I said, 'I think maybe — maybe you need new people.' " She did not say what the president's immediate response was.
Fielding questions aboard her plane, Rice strenuously denied a claim in Bob Woodward's new book, "State of Denial," that her relations with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once deteriorated to the point where Bush had to intervene to ensure Rumsfeld would return Rice's calls.
"Secretary Rumsfeld has never refused to return my phone calls," Rice said, noting the two talked every day as part of routine "principals' calls" involving senior officials.
"The idea that he wasn't returning my phone calls is simply ludicrous," she said.
Rice also denied Woodward's assertion that she colluded in attempts with other Bush aides to get Rumsfeld fired.
The secretary of state was at her most expansive when discussing Woodward's claim that during a White House meeting on July 10, 2001, two months before the Sept. 11, attacks, she gave a polite "brush-off" to then-CIA Director George Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, after the two men, alarmed by evidence of an impending terrorist attack on American soil, tried to "shake" Rice into immediate action against Usama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
While claiming not to remember the session in question — "we'll have to check the records," she said, adding "I don't know that this meeting took place" — Rice declared flatly "it was not a meeting in which I was told that there was an impending attack and I refused to respond."
In perhaps her lengthiest extemporaneous remarks ever about the pre-9/11 period, Rice said the summer of 2001 was marked by a "steady stream of [intelligence] chatter about a potential attack" presumed to be targeting a foreign country: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, possibly Israel or Jordan, but "nothing about the United States."
Still, Rice said, because no one could rule out an attack on American soil, Bush administration officials were "constantly acting on the threat reporting" in that time frame. She said all concerned parties seemed to agree that an attack was imminent, but the target and date of execution remained frustratingly elusive.
She cited extensive "disruption operations" abroad, including stepped-up efforts to capture Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydeh; the redeployment of the Fifth Fleet "out of harm's way"; consultations by Tenet with security officials from 20 foreign countries; daily gatherings of the Counter-Terrorism Strategy Group, chaired by Richard A. Clarke; and a discreet phone call to Saudi leaders by Vice President Dick Cheney, seeking Riyadh's help in determining the time and place of an attack.
On July 5, 2001, Rice recalled, she asked then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to join her at a meeting with Clarke, then the White House’s counter-terrorism chief, and the security officials of various domestic agencies and departments.
"I didn’t have authority over the domestic agencies," Rice said, explaining her request to have Card present. "If I had the chief of staff there, it might give us some, some potency — if we needed that — with the domestic agencies.
"And [I] asked Dick [Clarke] to convene a meeting, which he did, with agencies like the FAA and other domestic agencies. I understand, too, that a CIA briefing was then given to security officials from domestic agencies. I also asked that [Attorney General] John Ashcroft be shown the threat reporting.
"The FBI held several briefings, including with their special agents in charge, [at] one of which they told the special agents in charge that even though there was no credible threat reporting about the United States, that could not be ruled out."
Rice remembered "sitting in the Oval Office" and talking with the president and Tenet "every day" during that tense period, poring over the President’s Daily Briefing and other highly classified documents that assessed the terrorist threat.
"The idea that I would somehow have ignored that, I find incomprehensible," Rice said. "It just — it kind of doesn’t ring true that you’d have to shock me into something that I was very involved in." Yes, Tenet was "very worried" at the time, Rice said, but "we were all very worried."
The 9/11 Commission later questioned Rice closely about the administration’s counter-terrorism program immediately preceding the Sept. 11 attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives. In particular, Rice was grilled about her response to an Aug. 6, 2001, daily briefing entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S." At the time of her testimony before the panel, in April 2004, Rice maintained that none of the intelligence streaming into Washington prior to 9/11 pointed specifically to an imminent attack on American soil.
The current counselor to the State Department, Phillip Zelikow, a leading historian and longtime intimate of Rice’s, served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission. Rice acknowledged that Zelikow, who was expected to join her in the Mideast later in the week, had remained in Washington to marshal evidence that could help "reconstruct" her actions in the period described in "State of Denial."
"We …made available to the 9/11 Commission all the documentary records of my meetings with George Tenet on this subject, and on terrorism more broadly," Rice said. "I think if you look at the 9/11 Commission report, you will not see anything that characterizes a meeting and response of the kind that is described [by Woodward]."
Rice also responded to headlines generated by "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," a new book by Washington Post reporter Karen Deyoung, that claim Powell felt he was treated shabbily by the president. While refusing to speak for her predecessor, Rice said he was "respected" and "listened to" by Mr. Bush.
"I know that the president had an open door for Colin Powell, and that he won an awful lot of the arguments that he made," Rice said.