(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – National security adviser Condoleezza Rice defended the Bush administration’s terrorism policies in her testimony Thursday before the bi-partisan independent commission in charge of investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
“If we knew an attack was coming against the United States, that an attack was coming against Washington and New York, we would have moved heaven and earth to prevent it,” Rice said.
Dressed in a beige suit with a U.S. flag lapel pin decorating her chest, Rice spoke in her usual calm and businesslike manner, though her voice noticeably quivered at times. She explained that the “frustratingly vague” intelligence available to the administration was not enough to thwart the attacks but that President Bush was focused on terrorism and that he “understood the threat, and he understood its importance.”
Rice also stressed that her administration continued the anti-terrorism initiatives left over from the Clinton era, leveling some of the blame on previous administrations.
Asked by Lee H. Hamilton, commission vice chair, to name the single most important thing that the administration could have done about the threats, Rice deflected blame away from the White House saying that communication and “structural” problems between the CIA and the FBI were responsible for the administration’s inability to “connect the dots” with regard to intelligence.
Commissioner Jamie Gorelick asked Rice to explain why the communication problem was not addressed in her 233 days in office, to which Rice replied, “it’s absolutely the case that we did not begin structural reform of the FBI.”
When Rice said that the FAA administrator knew about the threat and that the FBI was tasked to investigate it, Gorelick undercut her statement by saying that the administrator “had no idea of the threat” and that “the Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat.”
Rice’s appearance came after weeks of controversy prompted by counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke’s assertions in his book and in sworn testimony that the Bush administration, and Rice in particular, largely ignored terrorism threats before Sept. 11, 2001.
Added to the fray was the White House’s resistance to let Rice testify. Both Bush and Rice insisted for weeks that her public testimony would erode the president’s constitutional authority. Though Bush eventually caved under mounting political pressure, the panel agreed not to seek testimony from other White House aides at public hearings in exchange for Rice’s testimony.
“I think that no matter what she said today, the damage from the Bush administration’s stonewalling has already been done,” said Adam Conner, a sophomore majoring in political communication. “The White House’s initial refusal to cooperate and let Dr. Rice testify under oath made it look like they have something to hide.”
The most tense moments of her testimony came when former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste questioned Rice about an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily brief which warned of terrorist preparations being made for hijackings on American soil. After a testy exchange about whether she briefed the president about al Qaeda cells in the United States, information that was passed on to her by Clarke, Rice responded that she couldn’t remember.
Ben-Veniste also pushed Rice to declassify the PDB, titled, ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States’, prompting applause from the victims’ families who were seated in the room.
Rice insisted that the document merely had “historical information” that revealed no new threats since it contained no specific information regarding the time and place of an attack.
Democrats have a stake in the declassification of the briefing because it reveals Bush’s understanding of the al Qaeda threat, and after initial resistance White House officials released the briefing late Saturday night.