White House moves to defend Rice

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The Independent US

The Bush administration has released a previously classified document about its plan to attack Osama bin Laden in an effort to protect its beleaguered National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, against claims that she failed to recognise the threat posed by al-Qa'ida.

The Bush administration has released a previously classified document about its plan to attack Osama bin Laden in an effort to protect its beleaguered National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, against claims that she failed to recognise the threat posed by al-Qa'ida.

After a week of damaging allegations that the administration failed to heed warnings that al-Qa'ida was planning to attack the US, the White House released information which showed that a week before 11 September 2001, President Bush ordered his military planners to draw up plans to strike the terror network.

The defensive move underlines the mounting pressure on the White House to show that it did all it could to tackle al-Qa'ida in the months after President Bush assumed office. This issue - what the administration knew and when - is the focus of an investigation by the independent 9/11 Commission.

Following a U-turn this week, it was announced that Ms Rice will give public testimony to the panel on Thursday. Ms Rice is likely to face a battery of questions about what the administration knew about al-Qa'ida in the spring and summer of 2001.

Ms Rice's appearance - under oath and with the threat of perjury - has the potential to be hugely damaging for the Bush administration, given her previous comments. On 23 March Ms Rice wrote in The Washington Post: "Despite what some have suggested, we received no intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack the homeland using airplanes as missiles... ". The panel members are likely to confront Ms Rice with the findings of an earlier congressional inquiry that would appear to directly contradict Ms Rice's comments. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence joint inquiry issued its report in December 2002. In its conclusions, it said: "Beginning in 1998 and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States ... From at least 1994, and continuing into the summer of 2001, the intelligence community received information indicating that terrorists were contemplating, among other means of attack, the use of aircraft as weapons."

The controversy surrounding Ms Rice was initially sparked by claims by the White House's former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarkein a recently published book and then again in sworn testimony before the commission that he had repeatedly warned the administration about the threat posed by al-Qa'ida and that he had been ignored.

That pressure significantly increased with claims from a former FBI translator who told The Independent this week that she had provided information to the 9/11 Commission that could prove senior officials knew of al-Qa'ida's plans to attack the US with aircraft months before the strikes happened. She said the claim by Ms Rice that there was no such information was "an outrageous lie".

Sibel Edmonds, 33, said: "I gave [the commission] details of specific investigation files, the specific dates, specific target information, specific managers in charge of the investigation. I gave them everything so that they could go back and follow up. This is not hearsay. These are things that are documented. These things can be established very easily."

Yesterday Mrs Edmonds said she hoped the panel would present Ms Rice with the apparent contradiction suggested by the joint congressional inquiry's report. "I think they will ask her. Will they get an answer? I can see her twisting it. I can see her trying to wriggle out of it by saying we thought they were going to hijack aircraft but not use them as missiles," she said.

"If you put this information [I saw] with other stuff they had from the Phoenix memo [about suspects taking flying lessons] and stuff coming in from field offices about flight schools, there is no way they can say they did not know. An idiot could work it out."

Mrs Edmonds, from northern Virginia, was fired from the FBI in March 2002 after she went public with allegations of incompetence within the translation department. At the time senior US senators testified to her credibility. The Republican senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he spoke to FBI officials who confirmed many of her allegations. "She's credible and the reason I feel she's very credible is because people within the FBI have corroborated a lot of her story," he said at the time.

He said this week: "They admitted most of the facts but denied the conclusions. The FBI has failed to overhaul [the translation] unit, despite its obvious and critical importance in the war on terrorism."

When Mrs Edmonds sued the FBI over her dismissal, the Attorney General, John Ashcroft, at the request of the FBI director, Robert Mueller, invoked the rarely used "state secrets privilege" procedure to petition the court to dismiss the case. A statement issued by the Department of Justice said this had been "to prevent the disclosure of certain classified and sensitive national security information".

Mrs Edmonds will attend the hearing when Mr Mueller gives evidence later this month. She hopes the commission will specifically ask him about whether an FBI field office obtained in April 2001 information about an attack using aircraft and whether an FBI informant who had been used by the bureau for 10 years had revealed details of specific terrorist plans and cells already in the county. "He couldn't say no," she said. "I am saying director Mueller should be asked some very serious questions."

The document released by the White House yesterday was a presidential directive on 4 September 2001 which ordered the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to plan for military operations "against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control, air and air defence, ground forces, and logistics".

It also called for plans against al-Qa'ida and "associated terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control-communications, training, and logistics facilities."

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