April 9, 2004 — WASHINGTON – Condoleezza Rice aggressively defended the White House yesterday, insisting that President Bush was alert to the possibility of domestic terror attacks but lacked specific information about 9/11. During a dramatic three- hour appearance before the federal commission investigating the attacks, a poised and firm Rice said the White House didn’t have a “silver bullet” that would have prevented Sept. 11.
“The problem is that the United States was effectively blind to what was about to happen to it,” Rice, the national security advisor, testified under oath.
“One of the problems here was there really was nothing that looked like it was going to happen inside the United States.”
The threats pointed to possible targets overseas, Rice said, adding, “We weren’t on war footing.”
Rice’s nationally televised remarks – aimed at rebutting recent harshly critical statements from former counterterror czar Richard Clarke – generally won praise from a politically mixed Post panel of six New Yorkers.
“I think she did very well,” said Post panelist Morgan Friedman, 28, a political independent who’s a computer programmer from Brooklyn.
Disputing claims by Clarke, Rice insisted in her testimony that Bush “understood the threat [from terrorism] and he understood its importance.”
Questions from some members of the commission – made up of five Republicans and five Democrats – were at times sharp, and Rice clashed with them over how the administration had handled a rise in terror-threat warnings during the summer before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commission member, pressed Rice to say whether she ever revealed to Bush that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist sleeper cells were active in the United States.
“Did you tell the president?” he asked.
Rice started to answer, but Ben-Veniste cut her off and the two bickered before she conceded: “I really don’t remember, commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.”
In another tense exchange, Ben-Veniste asked Rice to identify the title of a presidential daily brief given to Bush in Aug. 6, 2001, while he was on vacation at his Texas ranch.
“I believe the title was, ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,’ ” Rice said, trying to elaborate before Ben-Veniste again cut her off.
“No, Mr. Ben-Veniste . . . I would like to finish my point here,” Rice responded.
“I didn’t know there was a point,” Ben-Veniste shot back.
Rice said the Aug. 6 memo contained historical threat information about the domestic danger of al Qaeda, but no specific terror threat warnings that pointed to an upcoming strike.
“It did not warn of attacks inside the United States,” she said. “It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information.”
The White House plans to declassify the presidential brief so that it can be made public.
The commission yesterday also heard from former President Bill Clinton behind closed doors.
Clarke, interviewed on ABC, complimented Rice for a “very good job” in her testimony, and challenged her on only one factual point.
He said he had asked “several times” before the Sept. 11 attacks to brief Bush on terrorism, while Rice said he had not.
Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, a commission member, slammed Rice for her statement that Bush was waiting to strike bin Laden because he was tired of “swatting at flies” and wanted a more comprehensive approach.
“We only swatted a fly once, on the 20th of August 1998. We didn’t swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?” said Kerrey, referring to the missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan ordered by Clinton in 1998.
Rice responded, “It was simply a figure of speech.”
She turned the tables on Kerrey and seemed to fluster him by citing a speech he had given in which he called for military action against Saddam Hussein.
Relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks, many with photos of their smiling loved ones pinned to their jackets, listened intently in a packed hearing room as testified.
After her testimony, Rice shook hands with some family members and embraced several others.
Rosemary Dillard, whose husband was on the plane that hit the Pentagon, hugged Rice, although she said she wasn’t completely happy with her answers to the panel.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever find out what genuinely happened,” Dillard said.
Widow Beverly Eckert, who took copious notes throughout the hearing, said, “I don’t think the commission made any progress whatsoever.
“The witnesses have made it very difficult for the commission to do its job.”
Another widow, Kristen Breitweiser, could barely contain her anger while listening to members of the commission commend Rice as a strong witness.
“I wanted her to be more forthcoming, more concise in her answers,” Breitweiser said.