KWAME HOLMAN: Condoleezza Rice spent most of yesterday sitting before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee fielding questions posed by its 18 members.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: As has been mentioned, we had over nine hours of testimony, I think very good questions and very good answers.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I also thank the members of the committee for yesterday. I think it was an extensive-- some would say even exhaustive-- look at the questions that we face in American foreign policy, but I think it was an important day.
KWAME HOLMAN: So important that Committee Chairman Richard Lugar scheduled another session for this morning. He did so largely at the behest of committee Democrats, who wanted to press for answers they felt had eluded them yesterday, primarily concerning reasons for going to war in Iraq.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: The questions we asked you in writing and then yesterday at the hearing I thought, gave you an opportunity to acknowledge some of the mistakes and misjudgments of the past four years. But instead of seizing the opportunity, it seems to me, Dr. Rice, you danced around it.
You sort of stuck to the party line, which seems pretty consistent: You're always right. You all have never made any mistakes. You're never wrong. And it's almost like if I acknowledge any weakness, if I acknowledge any misjudgments on the part of me or the president or anybody in the team, it's a sign of weakness. But I don't... I personally don't think it is. I think it's a sign of some degree of maturation, strength.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I said yesterday, Senator, we've made a lot of decisions in this period of time. Some of them have been good. Some of them have not been good. Some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure. I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment, but in how it all adds up. And that's just strongly the way that I feel about big historical changes. I'm being as straightforward with you as I possibly can.
KWAME HOLMAN: Next, Rice was challenged with a series of specific charges made by California's Barbara Boxer, all alleging Rice deliberately mislead the American public in selling the reasons for going to war. For example:
SEN. BARBARA BOXER: On Sept. 25, '02, you said in an interview with Margaret Warner on PBS, "We clearly know that there were in the past and have been contacts between senior Iraqi officials and members of Al-Qaida going back for actually quite a long time." And you went on to say, "And there are some Al-Qaida personnel who found refuge in Baghdad."
Now that statement and others by administration officials assert there was a long-standing operational alliance between Iraq and Al-Qaida, but we know the truth is otherwise. We know it. And I'll show you again the State Department document signed off by President Bush in October 2001, one month after 9/11, showing absolutely no operational cells in Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think we did say that there was never an issue of operational control, that Al-Qaida... that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, as far as we know or could tell. It wasn't a question of operational lines. It was a question of an attitude about terrorism that allowed Zarqawi to be in Baghdad and to operate out of Baghdad. There were contacts going back to the early '90s, and those are indeed detailed in the 9/11 report.
KWAME HOLMAN: Bill Nelson of Florida followed.
SEN. BILL NELSON: So, too, there was a difference of opinion within the intelligence community with regard to unmanned aerial vehicles that Saddam Hussein had. And indeed, what I and other senators were told that there was a plot that he was going to put them on ships off the eastern seaboard of the United States and launch them over eastern cities of the United States, dropping chemical or biological weapons.
We were told that. But what we were not told is that there was a vigorous disagreement within the intelligence community, specifically the Air Force intelligence, which knows the most about UAV's.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Obviously, we need the very best intelligence. And obviously, there were problems with the intelligence concerning Iraq weapons of mass destruction I don't think because members of the intelligence community were trying to deceive or to do a bad job or any of those things.
It's an incredibly difficult intelligence challenge when you're dealing with a closed society that is deliberately deceiving and where they're using dual-use equipment. And the question very often is, do you give Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt that these are really for weather monitoring or not?
KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois freshman Democrat Barack Obama picked up on questions about the training of Iraqi troops and an exit strategy.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: And I recognize that you are hesitant in your current position to provide a timetable. On the other hand, constituents and families in small towns all across Illinois need some more satisfactory answer than that.
And it strikes me that this whole issue of training troops, turning over security functions to the Iraqi government is critical to that. So my first question, I guess, is: Are you committed to setting up some mechanism whereby we can get some specific answers on that?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I-- and I will note that the police training is actually under the Defense Department and under the military-- but I will...
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I understand this may require an additional commitment from Secretary Rumsfeld, but --
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I will talk to Secretary Rumsfeld about it, and I'm certain that we can be responsive to the concern.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I guess the comment that I'd like to make is that in the activist proactive strategies that you pursue, it seems to me that this administration often asks that we simply go along and have faith that you're making the right decisions.
But I think that from the perspective of my constituents in Illinois, at least, a number of people did vote for George Bush and do trust him. But my job as a senator is to make sure that we're basing these decisions on facts and that I probe and not simply take it on faith that good decisions are being made.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican, returned with follow-up questions as well.
SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE: Going back to our questions of finding... my questions from yesterday, finding common ground, and as I look back in history-- and you're a historian-- and the success we had with the thaw with the People's Republic of China had a lot to do with the exchange of ping-pong teams, of all things.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Obviously, we need to look for common ground. There is no reason that the United States needs to have permanent enemies. We have had circumstances in which there have been major changes in the world. And the Libyan experience shows that if there are countries that are prepared to forswear behavior that is dangerous to the international system that we can start down a different path.
And I'm glad that you mentioned the ping-pong diplomacy because obviously in almost every circumstance, the exchange of people of civil society, of non- governmental actors, is often an important tool in thawing difficult relations. And so I don't want to leave the impression that I would be by any means opposed to looking for those opportunities and I will look for them.
SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE: And with Iran? Can you... is there any potential for finding common ground with Iran?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: This is just a regime that has a really very different view of the Middle East and where the world is going than we do. It's really hard to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished. It's difficult to find common ground with a government that is supporting Hezbollah and terrorist organizations that are determined to undermine the Middle East peace that we seek.
So I would hope that the nuclear issues will be resolved. It's extremely important to the world that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon, and we are working closely with the European Union on that. I would hope that the Iranian government does something to make clear to the world that they're not going to support terrorists who are determined to undermine the two-state solution in the Palestinian -- in the holy land.
KWAME HOLMAN: Members wrapped up their questions by mid-morning and Chairman Lugar called for an immediate committee vote on Rice's nomination as secretary of state.
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. Martinez.
SPOKESPERSON: Mr. Biden.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even though several senators had expressed reservations, the vote in favor was overwhelming, sixteen to two. Only Democrats John Kerry and boxer voted against. The full Senate was expected to vote tomorrow but late this afternoon Democrats won a delay until next week to give members not on the Foreign Relations Committee a chance to speak on the Rice nomination.