Condoleeza Rice, President George Bush's National Security Adviser, admitted yesterday that the Bush administration was not on a "war footing" before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
She said, however, there was no "silver bullet" that could have prevented the attacks and that any hopes of doing so were thwarted by an endemic lack of communication between the CIA and the FBI.
In more than two and a half hours of avidly awaited testimony to the commission examining the background to 11 September, Ms Rice delivered a composed, articulate and forceful defence of Mr Bush, insisting he was fully aware of the threat of al-Qa'ida. But however alarming, none of the intense terrorist "chatter" picked up in the summer of 2001 gave specific indications, in her words, of "when, where and how" the strike might be carried out.
She pointed to "structural and legal impediments" in the collection and pooling of information by the FBI, responsible for domestic law enforcement, and the CIA, which handled foreign intelligence, as problems that prevented more information being gathered. Thus, suspicions of FBI field officers in 2001 about Middle Eastern men attending flight schools in Arizona and Minnesota were not properly circulated. Nor was the CIA's awareness that two future hijackers, known al-Qa'ida operatives, were in the US.
Mr Bush had long refused to allow his closest foreign policy adviser to give public evidence under oath to the commission, before yielding to overwhelming pressure for Ms Rice to do so. White House officials said the President (who alongside Vice-President Dick Cheney will meet privately with the commission later this month) watched her performance at his Texas ranch, where he is spending Easter.
He will probably have been well satisfied, although in the present fiercely partisan election- year climate, Ms Rice is unlikely to have changed many minds. Republicans on the committee were generally polite, but Democrats maintained she had not dispelled doubts that Mr Bush might have done more to prevent the attacks.
The toughest questioning came from two Democrats, the former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey and Richard Ben Veniste, prosecutor for the Watergate committee, which pursued Richard Nixon in the early 1970s. Taking issue with her chief critic, she insisted that the former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke had never asked for a specific meeting with Mr Bush to underline the grave threat posed by al-Qa'ida.
She also denied his claim that the Bush administration had not "shaken the tree" with sufficient vigour, to dislodge precious pieces of information from the federal bureaucracy that might have pointed to the impending attack. The fault was in the system, not at the White House.
Much of the criticism levelled at Mr Bush surrounds the "PDB" or presidential daily briefing provided by the CIA on 6 August 2001, which is said to have warned that terrorists might use hijacked aircraft to attack the US. But Ms Rice said that brief was in response to a request by Mr Bush for an update on the terrorist menace. It recapped existing material, but did not specifically warn of an impending attack. Democrats last night renewed demands for total declassification of that PDB.
She maintained, as did senior Clinton administration officials last month, that before 11 September no one was recommending a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. But Mr Bush, she said, had already decided that a strategic offensive against terrorism was needed, to replace the Clinton era approach of "swatting flies" with small-scale strikes against al-Qa'ida.
Mr Kerrey pointed to the Bush team's failure to respond to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, even when the FBI had established that Osama bin Laden's group was responsible. Angrily, he asked Ms Rice: "What fly did the President swat? Name me one swatted fly?"
Now everything was different, Ms Rice argued. Terrorism could be tackled only with a pre-emptive action. "If we learnt anything on 9/11 it was that we must strike first ... We could seek a narrow victory, or go for broader goals. President Bush chose the latter course."Reuse content