By Paul Magnusson
With the families of the victims seated behind her, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice sparred testily with Democratic members of the 10-person 9/11 Commission and easily handled the gentle softballs thrown by the Republican members during her first and only public appearance before the panel on Apr. 8. There was no apology, no admission of error, and no deviation from the Bush Administration's insistence that it couldn't have done anything differently to head off the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
For all the anticipation, her appearance had little drama. Like the trained concert pianist that she is, Rice stayed on key and on message throughout her three-hour policy recital: The Administration was moving carefully and responsibly in the right direction to address the "strategic" threat posed by al Qaeda when terrorist hijackers commandeered four passenger jets and turned them into weapons. Up to that point, all the intelligence against possible attacks had been "frustratingly vague," she insisted.
Rice's testimony was probably a small win on balance for the White House. President Bush and his advisers had blocked her public appearance for months, claiming it violated constitutional principles of the separation of powers. Having finally agreed to testify under oath, Rice revealed little. And she likely only needed to keep from admitting that the Administration had committed what one Democratic questioner called "the M-word" -- a mistake.
In contrast to White House top anti-terrorism aide Richard Clarke two weeks before, who apologized to the victim's families for "failing to protect" them, Rice refused to accept blame.
Why did the Cabinet and top White House officials reject Clarke's pre-9/11 pleas for more aggressive actions against Osama bin Laden's terrorist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Because it would have taken the U.S. in "the wrong direction," Rice told the panel. Similarly, the Bush Administration's refusal to attack al Qaeda after the October, 2000, attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen that killed 17 sailors stemmed from a belief that "it would just embolden [al Qaeda]," said Rice.
MORE TO COME.
A "tit for tat" response after al Qaeda was identified as the culprit was also rejected because, Rice said, President Bush "was tired of swatting flies" and wanted a new, more strategic response. "There was no silver bullet" solution to terrorism, Rice insisted.
The political ordeal isn't over for the White House, however. An upcoming two-day panel hearing on Apr. 14 and 15 will feature testimony from former Attorney General Janet Reno, former FBI director Louis Freeh, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Director George Tenet.
Also remaining is the question of the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing that President Bush received from Tenet at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. Under questioning from Democratic panel member Richard Ben-Veniste, Rice insisted that Tenet's report was "historical," and involved other warnings too vague and focused on threats abroad to provoke action by the Administration.
But when asked for the title of a still-classified memo to the President pre-9/11, Rice admitted that it was named, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States." Commission members are seeking to have the memo declassified.
Magnusson covers the White House and foreign affairs from BusinessWeek's Washington bureau
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht