Rice said during her 20-minute opening statement, ”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.”
“Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before Sept. 11, this country simply was not on a war footing,” said Rice.
The national security adviser clashed with some of the Democratic members of the panel during nearly three hours of testimony.
Rice sought to defend the administration against charges that President Bush and his team did not take seriously enough the threat from Osama bin Laden and his loose terror network in the months before terrorists flew hijacked planes into the twin World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
President Bush “understood the threat, and he understood its importance” in advance of the attacks, Rice told the panel.
Rice said Clinton administration officials briefed the president and his incoming team after the November 2000 election on many national security issues, including counterterrorism and al-Qaida.
“Because of these briefings and because we had watched the rise of al-Qaida over the years, we understood that the network posed a serious threat to the United States. We wanted to ensure there was no respite in the fight against al-Qaida,” Rice said.
“[President Bush] made clear to me that he did not want to respond to al-Qaida one attack at a time. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies’,” she added in a rejection of claims made last month by former terrorism chief Richard Clarke.
The swatting flies comment drew a response from former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, who noted the administration made no military response to an attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
“Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once. … How the hell could he (Bush) be tired?” Kerrey asked.
“I think it’s only a figure of speech,” she replied, adding that the president felt that the CIA was “going after individual terrorists.”
In widely anticipated testimony, Rice did not specifically apologize for the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 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.”
Rice also discussed the administration’s response in the days after the 9/11 attacks and the steps that led to the decision to take military action against Afghanistan as well as whether Iraq was a factor.
“There was a discussion of Iraq,” Rice said of a post-9/11 meeting at Camp David. “I think it was raised by (Defense Secretary) Don Rumsfeld. It was pressed a bit by (Deputy Defense Secretary) Paul Wolfowitz. Given that this was a global war on terror, should we look not just at Afghanistan, but should we look at doing something against Iraq? There was a discussion of that,” she said.
Commission Chairman and former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean asked Rice about whether there were any discussions or memos previous to 9/11 about the threat of using planes as bombs, a question he said was passed to him by members of families of those killed in the attacks.
“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,” Rice said. “I cannot tell you that there might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst.”
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, challenged Rice in particular on a briefing given to the president on Aug. 6, 2001, at which a document was presented entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
As members of the audience, including some family members of 9/11 victims applauded, Ben-Veniste demanded that the report be declassified.
Rice said it contained no specific threats explaining, “it did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting.”
During her opening statement, Rice read some of the “chatter” that the United States picked up during the spring and summer that raised alarms about a possible attack: “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,” Rice said. “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.”
The bipartisan 9/11 commission has heard public testimony from other cabinet members, including Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Commission members had urged Rice to testify under oath about discrepancies between White House statements and those of Clarke, who told the commission in late March that the Bush administration ignored his repeated warnings about the dangers al-Qaida posed.
The White House initially refused to allow Rice to testify publicly but reversed its decision on March 30. A letter from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales said the president recognized the unique circumstances around the investigation of the attacks and agreed to let her appear as long as it did not set a precedent for testimony by a national security adviser.
Rice, who met privately with the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States on Feb. 7 and had offered to do so again, said in the run up to the president’s decision to allow her to testify that a public appearance would go against the long-standing principle of the separation of the legislative and executive branches.
All three major U.S. television networks took the unusual step of preempting daytime programming to broadcast Rice’s sworn public testimony before the commission.