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KWAME HOLMAN: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice arrived in the packed Senate hearing room shortly before 9:00. Her much anticipated testimony was expected to be a direct rebuttal to the charges made in the same room two weeks ago by former counter terrorism chief Richard Clarke, that the Bush administration did not do enough to address the al-Qaida terrorism threat prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Rice read from a long prepared statement detailing the actions the president and his advisors did take and explaining why they couldn’t do more.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The terrorists were at war with us but we were not yet at war with them. For more than 20 years the terrorist threat gathered and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient and tragically for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on war footing.
From Jan. 20 through Sept. 10, the president received at these daily meetings more than 40 briefing items on al-Qaida, and 13 of these were in response to questions he or his top advisers had posed. We also moved to develop a new and comprehensive strategy to eliminate the al-Qaida terrorist network. President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance. He made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al-Qaida one attack at a time.
He told me he was “tired of swatting flies.” This new strategy was developed over the spring and summer of 2001 and was approved by the president’s senior national security officials on Sept. 4. It was the very first major national security policy directive of the bush administration, not Russia, not missile defense, not Iraq, but the elimination of al-Qaida.
KWAME HOLMAN: Rice said during the spring and summer of 2001, when intelligence reports of possible terrorism threats spiked, they came without specifics of time, place or manner of attack.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Almost all of the reports focused on al-Qaida activities outside the United States, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the information that was specific enough to be actionable referred to terrorist operations overseas.
More often, it was frustratingly vague. Let me read you some of the actual chatter that we picked up that spring and summer: “Unbelievable news in coming weeks. Big event, there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar.” “There will be attacks in the near future.” Troubling, yes. But they don’t tell us when; they don’t tell us where; they don’t tell us who; and they don’t tell us how.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of the threat information we received was focused overseas, I was also concerned about possible threats inside the United States.
On July 5, Chief of Staff Andy Card and I met with Dick Clarke, and I asked Dick to make sure that domestic agencies were aware of the heightened threat period and were taking appropriate steps to respond, even though we did not have specific threats to the homeland. Throughout this period of heightened threat information, we worked hard on multiple fronts to detect, protect against, and disrupt any terrorist plans or operations that might lead to an attack.
For instance, the Department of Defense issued at least five urgent warnings to U.S. Military forces that al-Qaida might be planning a near-term attack, and placed our military forces in certain regions on heightened alert. The State Department issued at least four urgent security advisories and public worldwide cautions on terrorist threats, enhanced security measures at certain embassies, and warned the Taliban that they would be held responsible for any al-Qaida attack on U.S. interests.
The FBI issued at least three nationwide warnings to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and specifically stated that although the vast majority of the information indicated overseas targets, attacks against the homeland could not be ruled out. The FBI also tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known or suspected terrorists and reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities. The FAA issued at least five civil aviation security information circulars to all U.S. airlines and airport security personnel, including specific warnings about the possibility of hijackings.
Yet as your hearings have shown there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. In hindsight if anything could have stopped 9/11 it would have been better information on 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.
KWAME HOLMAN: Family members of some of the victims of the 9/11 attacks sat behind Rice, listening intently. Commission Chairman Tom Kean asked one of the first questions on their behalf.
THOMAS KEAN: I’ve got a question now I’d like to ask you. It was given to me by a number of members of the families. Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9/11 that talked about using planes as bombs?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman, this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us. I cannot tell you that there might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst. Part of the problem is that you have thousands of pieces of information, car bombs and this method and that method, and you have to depend to a certain degree on the intelligence agencies to sort, to tell you what is actually… is actually relevant, what is actually based on sound sources, what is speculative. And I can only assume or believe that perhaps the intelligence agencies thought that the sourcing was speculative. All that I can tell you is that it was not in the august 6th memo, using planes as a weapon, and I do not remember any reports to us, a kind of strategic warning that planes might be used as a weapon.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Aug. 6, 2001 memo rice referred to was prepared by the CIA and delivered to the president by its Director George Tenet, at the president’s daily briefing. The memo, therefore, is know by the acronym PDB. This morning, commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste questioned Rice sharply on whether that P.D.B. Contained al-Qaida threat information the president should have acted on.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: You have said to us in our meeting together earlier, in February, that the president directed the CIA to prepare the Aug. 6 PDB. The extraordinary high terrorist attack threat level in the summer of 2001 is well documented. And Richard Clarke’s testimony about the possibility of an attack against the United States homeland was repeatedly discussed from May to August within the intelligence community, and that is well documented. You acknowledged to us in your interview of Feb. 7, 2004 that Richard Clarke told you that al-Qaida cells were in the United States. Did you tell the president at any time prior to Aug. 6 of the existence of al-Qaida cells in the United States?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: First, let me just make certain…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: If you could just answer that question.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, first…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Because I only have a very limited…
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I understand, commissioner, but it’s important…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Did you tell the president? ( Applause )
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It’s important that I also address… it’s also important, Commissioner, that I address the other issues that you have raised. So I will do it quickly, but if you’ll just give me a moment.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, my only question to you is whether you told the president.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I understand, Commissioner, but I will… if you will just give me a moment, I will address fully the questions that you’ve asked. First of all, yes, the Aug. 6 PDB was in response to questions of the president. In that sense, he asked that this be done. It was not a particular threat report. And there was historical information in there about various aspects of al-Qaida’s operations.
Dick Clarke had told me, I think in a memorandum– I remember it as being only a line or two– that there were al-Qaida cells in the United States. Now, the question is, what did we need to do about that? And I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al-Qaida cells. I believe in the august 6th memorandum it says that there were 70 full-field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this, but the FBI was pursuing it. I really don’t remember, commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the Aug. 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I believe the title was “bin laden determined to attack inside the United States.” Now, the PDB…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste, you…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the…
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would like to finish my point here.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I didn’t know that there was a point.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Given that you asked me whether or not it warned of attacks…
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I asked you what the title was.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: You said, “did it not warn of attacks?” It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information, and it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several times throughout her testimony she referred to structural problems that prevented the CIA and FBI from sharing information. Commissioner Fred Fielding picked up on that.
FRED FIELDING: What I would like you to address right now is what steps were taken by you and the administration to your knowledge in the first several months of administration to assess and address this problem?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We were in office 233 days. And the kinds of structural changes that have been needed by this country for some time did not get made in that period of time. But clearly what needed to be done was that we needed systems in place that would bring all of this together. It is not enough to leave this to chance.
If you look at this period, I think you see that everybody– the director of the CIA– Louis Freeh had left, but the key counter-terrorism person was a part of Dick Clarke’s group and was meeting with him and I’m sure shaking the trees and doing all of the things that you would want people to do. We were being given reports all the time that they were doing everything they could, but there was a systemic problem in getting that kind of shared intelligence.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fielding also referred back to one of Richard Clarke’s complaints that cabinet-level principals within the Bush administration did not meet to discuss threats of terrorism until a week before the Sept. 11 attacks.
SPOKESMAN: And would it have made a real difference in enhancing the exchange of intelligence, for instance, if it had been the principals?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I just don’t believe that bringing the principals over to the White House every day and having their counter-terrorism people have to come with them and be pulled away from what they were doing to disrupt was a good way to go about this. It wasn’t an efficient way to go about it.
I talked to Powell, I talked to Rumsfeld about what was happening with the threats and with the alerts, and the president of the United States had us at battle stations during this period of time. He expected his secretary of state to be locking down embassies. He expected his secretary of defense to be providing force protection. He expected his FBI director to be tasking his agents and getting people out there. He expected his director of central intelligence to be out and doing what needed to be done in terms of disruption. And he expected his national security adviser to be looking to see that, or talking to people to see that that was done.
KWAME HOLMAN: However Jamie Gorelick, a former top official in the Clinton Justice Department, suggested that those cabinet-level “principals” in charge of domestic agencies weren’t at all aware of a heightened terrorism threat during the summer of 2001.
JAMIE GORELICK: Secretary Mineta, the secretary of transportation, had no idea of the threat. The administrator of the FAA responsible for security on our airlines had no idea. Yes, the attorney general was briefed, but there is no evidence of any activity by him about this. You indicate in your statement that the FBI tasked its field offices to find out what was going on out there. We have no record of that.
The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings, they were not asked to come to the table and shake those trees. SACS, Special Agents in Charge around the country, Miami in particular, no knowledge of this. And so, I really come back to you– and let me add one other thing. Have you actually looked at the inlets, the messages that the FBI put out?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Yes.
JAMIE GORELICK: To me, and you’re free to comment on them, they are feckless. They don’t tell anybody anything. They don’t bring anyone to battle stations. And I personally believe, having heard Colleen Rowley’s testimony about her frustrations in the Moussaoui incident, that if someone had really gone out to the agents who were working these issues on the ground and said, “we are at battle stations. We need to know what’s happening out there. Come to us.” She would have broken through barriers to have that happen because she was knocking on doors and they weren’t opening. (Applause)
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: First of all, it was coming from the top, because the president was meeting with his director of central intelligence. And one of the changes that this president made was to meet face to face with his director of central intelligence almost every day. The think the question was why over these years did we not address the structural problems that were there with the FBI, the CIA, the Homeland Departments being scattered among many different departments and why given all the opportunities that we had to do it, had we not done it. I think that the unfortunate and I really do think it’s extremely tragic, fact is: That sometimes, until there is a catastrophic event that forces people to think differently, that forces people to overcome old customs and old culture and old fears about domestic intelligence and the relationship, that you don’t get that kind of change.
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey focused on two of the points rice mentioned in her opening statement.
BOB KERREY: You said the president was tired of swatting flies. Can you tell me one example where the president swatted a fly when it came to al-Qaida prior to 9/11?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think what the president was speaking to was…
BOB KERREY: No, no, what fly had he swatted?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the disruptions abroad was what he was really focusing on.
BOB KERREY: No, no–
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: When the CIA would go after al Musayda, go after this guy, and– that was what was meant.
BOB KERREY: Dr. Rice, we didn’t — 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?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We swatted at– I think he felt that what the agency was doing was going after individual terrorists here and there, and that’s what he meant by swatting flies. It was simply a figure of speech.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kerrey also referred to rice’s claim that domestic agencies sprang into action after Richard Clarke held a terrorism briefing for them on July 5 2001.
BOB KERREY: Here’s what agent Kenneth Williams said, five days later. He said that the FBI should investigate whether al-Qaida operatives were training at U.S. Flight schools. He posited that Osama bin Laden’s followers might be trying to infiltrate the civil aviation system as pilots and security guards, other personnel. He recommended a national program to track suspicious flight schools.
Now, look, one of the first things that I learned when I came into this town was the FBI and the CIA don’t talk. I mean, I don’t need a catastrophic event to know that the CIA, FBI don’t do a very good job of communicating. And the problem we’ve got with this– both and the Moussaoui facts, which were revealed on the 15th of August– all it had to do was to be put on intelink. All it had to do was is go out on intelink and the game’s over. It ends. This conspiracy would have been rolled up. And so I…
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I– commissioner, with all due respect– I don’t agree that we know that we had somehow a silver bullet here that was going to work. What we do know is that we did have a systemic problem — a structural problem between the FBI and the CIA. It was a long time in coming into being. It was there because there were legal impediments as well as bureaucratic impediments. Those needed to be overcome. Obviously the structure of the FBI that did not get information from the field offices up to FBI Central in a way that FBI Central could react to the whole range of information before it was a problem.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Lehman, navy secretary under President Reagan, offered Rice questions that required only short answers.
JOHN LEHMAN: First during the short or long transition — were you told before the summer that there were functioning al-Qaida cells in the United States?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: In the memorandum that Dick Clarke sent me on Jan. 25, he mentioned sleeper cells. There’s no mention or recommendation of anything that needs to be done about them. And the F.B.I. was pursuing them.
JOHN LEHMAN: Were you told that there were numerous young Arab males in flight training, had taken flight training, were in flight training?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I was not. And I’m not sure that that was known at the center.
JOHN LEHMAN: Were you told that the U.S. Marshal program had been changed to drop any U.S. Marshals on domestic flights?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I was not told that.
KWAME HOLMAN: But former Democratic Congressman Tim Roemer challenged rice to admit that someone within the government has to take responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks.
TIMOTHY ROEMER: You’re the national security adviser to the president of the United States. The buck may stop with the president; the buck certainly goes directly through you as the principal adviser to the president on these issues. And it really seems to me that there were failures and mistakes, structural problems, all kinds of issues here leading up to Sept. 11 that could have and should have been done better. Doesn’t that beg that there should have been more accountability, that there should have been a resignation or two, that there should have been you or the president saying to the rest of the administration somehow, somewhere, that this was not done well enough?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Mr. Roemer, by definition we didn’t have enough information. We didn’t have enough protection because the attack happened — by definition. And I think we’ve all asked ourselves what more could have been done. I will tell you, if we had known that an attack was coming against the United States, an attack was coming against New York and Washington, we would have moved heaven and earth to stop it. But you heard the character of the threat reporting we were getting. “Something very, very big is going to happen.” How do you act on “something very, very big is going to happen” beyond trying to put people on alert?
TIMOTHY ROEMER: You say that the FBI was tasked with trying to find out what the domestic threat was. We have done thousands of interviews here at the 9/11 Commission, we have gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody– nobody at the FBI who knows anything about a tasking of field offices.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The responsibility for the FBI to do what it was asked was the FBI’s responsibility. Now, I…
TIMOTHY ROEMER: You don’t think there’s any responsibility back to the adviser of the president?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I believe that the responsibility– again, the crisis management here was done by the CSG. They tasked these things. If there was any reason to believe that I needed to do something or that Andy Card needed to do something, I would have been expected to be asked to do it. We were not asked to do it. ( Applause )
KWAME HOLMAN: The hearing ended before noon. Rice testified for two and a half hours. One question that was asked was whether the White House would declassify the CIA’s Aug. 6 memo to the president. Several say the information it contains could help the public decide whether the president could have acted to prevent the terrorist attack. The commission hopes to have the answer next week.