Tough questions teed up for Rice testimony
"What's your name?", "Do you have children?", "What's your favourite food?" "Did you sleep lastnight?" "What is your favorite color?"...
By Mimi Hall and Judy Keen, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies to the commission investigating Sept. 11, she will face questions that have intensified in the 30 months since the attacks.
She will be asked to clarify apparent contradictions between how the administration explains its policies and actions and the way Richard Clarke, the former White House anti-terrorism chief, describes them.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, said Tuesday that the panel also plans to examine possible contradictions between earlier private testimony Rice gave to the commission and statements she has made to the news media.
Rice was interviewed by the commission in private for four hours on Feb. 7. Other officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet have testified publicly, but Rice's relationship with Bush is closer than any of theirs. Her public testimony, agreed to by the White House late Monday after weeks of negotiations, is important to commissioners and relatives of victims of the attacks because she had the most influence on Bush and the most intimate insider's view. Administration officials said it was likely that Rice's appearance would come at the end of next week.
"There are millions of questions that need to be answered," said Monica Gabrielle, a member of the Family Steering Committee, a 9/11 relatives group working with the commission. "She's sitting in the hot seat. ... All information is funneled through her, and she needs to explain why things weren't handled differently." Gabrielle's husband, Richard, died at the World Trade Center.
Based on interviews with commission members and a review of previous testimony and public statements by key officials, here's a preview of the questions commissioners are likely to ask Rice:
What specific warnings about potential terrorist attacks and targets did the Bush administration receive before Sept. 11?
During hearings last week, commission member Jamie Gorelick referred to classified threat intelligence before Sept. 11 that "would set your hair on fire, and not just George Tenet's hair on fire."
She said there had been an "extraordinary spike" in warnings of al-Qaeda attacks during the summer of 2001 — intelligence reported in Bush's daily briefings.
Bush has said repeatedly that if the administration had been given any indication that terrorists planned to attack, he would have ordered steps to try to stop it.
Rice will be questioned closely about how seriously Bush and his top aides took the threat reports.
On Aug. 6, 2001, Bush's daily intelligence briefing said al-Qaeda might hijack airplanes. Did the White House consider the possibility that planes would be used as weapons?
On May 16, 2002, Rice told reporters that there was no specific information in that 2001 briefing and that officials could not have imagined al-Qaeda was plotting suicide missions that involved flying planes into buildings.
"I don't think that anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile," she said. Some 9/11 family members have called that disingenuous and suggested that the administration either didn't take the threats seriously or that Rice and others were trying to protect themselves by saying no one could have imagined such attacks.
But Sean McCormack, a Rice spokesman, said she was told about the 2001 briefing after she made the comments to reporters.
Did Bush try to intimidate Clarke by asking him to look for a link between Sept. 11 and Iraq?
In his book, Against All Enemies, Clarke wrote that on Sept. 12, 2001, Bush told him in an intimidating manner, "See if Saddam (Hussein) was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred." Sunday on CBS' 60 Minutes, Rice said Bush "doesn't talk to his staff in an intimidating way to ask them to produce information that is false."
Was the administration so focused on Iraq that it neglected to heed Clarke's warnings about al-Qaeda attacks?
Several administration officials have denied that this was the case, although they acknowledge that ousting Saddam was discussed soon after Sept. 11. "The question was raised: In a global war on terrorism, should you also take care of the threat from Iraq?" Rice told CNN on March 22. But within days of the attacks, she said, Bush told her, "Iraq is to the side." When planning for retaliation for the attacks began, officials said, a map of Afghanistan, not Iraq, was unfurled on a table at Camp David.
Did the administration consider military action against al-Qaeda before Sept. 11?
Last week, the secretaries of Defense and State for the Clinton and Bush administrations testified that major military action against al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, wasn't considered for several reasons: There wasn't sufficient political or public support at home or abroad before Sept. 11, nor was there a base for operations overseas or good intelligence to locate the right targets.
Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator, railed to officials from both administrations that by not using firepower to answer al-Qaeda's previous attacks against American interests abroad, the U.S. government was sending a message "that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted."
Why did it take eight months to develop an al-Qaeda policy that wasn't much different from the Clinton approach?
Clarke said he could not get anyone to pay attention to the issue, which he admits was a personal obsession. In Bob Woodward's 2002 book, Bush at War, he wrote that Bush told him al-Qaeda was not his focus before Sept. 11. "I was not on point," Bush said. "I didn't feel a sense of urgency."
But Rice said she assigned Clarke on March 7, 2001, to develop a policy to eliminate al-Qaeda — not just to use diplomacy, as the Clinton administration did. That report was not reviewed by White House officials until Sept. 4, 2001. It proposed a policy that included the elements of Clinton's approach — diplomacy and isolation of al-Qaeda — but also said force should be used if necessary. The report called for the policy to be implemented over three to five years.
"I think for a new administration, the 7½ months is actually not very long," Rice told CBS, "and in the meantime we did everything that we knew how to do to continue to pursue al-Qaeda."
Could the attacks have been prevented?
Powell, Rumsfeld, Clinton secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Clinton Defense secretary William Cohen testified last week that they don't think so. When Rice was asked on 60 Minutes if she made any mistakes or misjudgments before the attacks, she said: "I think we did what we know how to do. ... Everything pointed to an attack abroad." Last Wednesday, Clarke told CNN's Larry King, "Well, we'll never know."
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