The government's investigation into the events surrounding the 9-11 attacks saw its most important — and perhaps its most dramatic — day of testimony on Thursday as Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, appeared before a congressional commission to address what the Bush administration knew prior to the attacks and how the tragedy might have been averted.
Rice defended the actions of the administration, and told the commission that "no silver bullet" could have prevented the tragedy.
"In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9-11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States — something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies," Rice said. "I just don't buy the argument that we weren't shaking the trees enough."
Rice testified under oath to the commission, which was created almost two years ago to prepare a report on the events that led to the 9-11 attacks. The White House had initially opposed the formation of the commission, arguing that it would pose a threat to national security secrets and demand time of officials busy fighting the war on terror. The Bush administration relented in September of 2002, clearing the way for the creation of the commission.
The national security adviser's appearance comes in the wake of damning testimony from Richard Clarke, who advised both President Bush and former President Bill Clinton on counterterrorism. Clarke told the commission that the Bush administration did not take action following his warnings about an increasing terrorist threat prior to 9-11.
Rice said Thursday that while the Bush administration had received general warnings about attacks on American interests, it had not received any specifics about when, where or how those attacks might occur. She also said that the administration did not receive word of any planned attacks against targets on U.S. soil. "It was frustratingly vague," Rice said of the information the government had received.
However, during an impassioned exchange with commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, Rice acknowledged that the president had received a classified memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States" one month before the 9-11 attacks. Rice stated that the memo, despite its title, was based on historical information and offered no new information or specifics; it was "not a warning," she said.
Clarke had also said that he warned the Bush administration about terrorist al Qaeda cells inside the U.S., but Rice countered that she was not told that the cells were something that "we needed to do something about," she said.
Clarke had also testified that the Bush administration was more interested in attacking Iraq than in dealing with al Qaeda. Rice countered that it made sense for the U.S. to investigate the possible involvement of Iraq given our combative history with that nation, and that nobody "twist[ed] the facts" to justify military action in Iraq.
Rice began her testimony at 9 a.m. and was grilled by commission members for three hours, with each question and answer broadcast live by all major news outlets.
The Bush administration had initially argued that Rice should not be called to testify publicly, noting that such testimony would violate the executive privilege needed to protect national security. The White House eventually relented, saying that it was important for Americans to hear the testimony.
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