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Bush Aware of Threat, Rice Tells Commission

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified Thursday "there was no silver bullet that could have prevented" the September 11, 2001 terror strikes, conceding the United States was ill-prepared despite a threat two decades in the making. 

President George W. Bush "understood the threat, and he understood its importance," in advance, she told a national commission in implicit rejection of claims made last month by former terrorism aide Richard Clarke.


Rice said the president came into office determined to develop a "more robust" policy to combat al-Qaeda. "He made clear to me that he did not want to respond to al-Qaeda one attack at a time.


"He told me he was 'tired of swatting flies'," she told the commission delving into the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, destroyed the twin World Trade Centre towers in New York and blasted a hole in the Pentagon.


In the widely anticipated testimony, Rice offered no apology for the failure to prevent the attacks -- as Clarke did two weeks ago. Instead, she said: "As an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt."


But she also said: "Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before September 11, this country simply was not on a war footing."


Rice's testimony, under oath and on live television, came after weeks of White House resistance. Bush yielded in response to repeated public requests from members of the commission -- as well as quiet proddings of Republicans in Congress -- that an on-the-record rebuttal was needed in response to Clarke's explosive charges.


The former White House aide testified last month that the Bush administration gave a lower priority to combating terrorism than had former President Clinton, and that the decision to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror.


Rice's appearance was businesslike for the most part, but turned contentious when Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission, pressed her on what was known about the terrorist threat in advance of the September 11 attacks.


"I would like to finish my point," she said when he began speaking while she was. "I didn't know there was a point," he replied.


Rice acknowledged that she had spoken too broadly once when she said that no one had ever envisioned terrorists using planes and crashing them into buildings.


She said aides came to her within days and said there had been reports or memos about that possibility, but that she hadn't seen them.


Pointing a finger of blame, she said that senior officials "have to depend on intelligence agencies to tell you what is relevant."


Asked to rebut Clarke's claim that Bush pressed him to find an Iraq connection to the suicide hijackings, Rice said she did not recall such a discussion but that "I'm quite certain the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts."


She added: "It is not surprising that the president would say 'What about Iraq?'" But she said when Bush's top advisers met after September 11, none recommended action against Iraq before taking military action against Afghanistan. In her prepared testimony, Rice neither criticized Clarke nor offered a point-by-point rebuttal of his testimony.


She said confronting terrorists competed with other foreign policy concerns when the president came into office, but added that the administration's top national security advisers completed work on the first major national security policy directive of the administration on September 4. The subject, she said, was "not Russia, not missile defence, not Iraq, but the elimination of al-Qaeda."


Rice slid into the witness chair before an audience that included relatives of victims of the attacks, in which terrorists flew hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.


(China Daily April 9, 2004)

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