Rice: Red tape hindered pre-9/11 efforts
Rice told the federal commission investigating the attacks that in the months immediately after President Bush took office his administration was operating on two levels to address terrorism: developing a policy for dealing with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, and responding to threat warnings through crisis management. She said most threat information during the summer of 2001 indicated that attacks were going to occur overseas, but federal agencies failed to connect domestic dots showing that an attack inside the United States was being planned.
"In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop [the attacks], it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies," Rice told the commission, formally called the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
June-August 2001 has been described as the "summer of threat" when the federal government received a flood of information about possible catastrophic attacks against U.S. interests.
Some commission members questioned why the Bush administration did not do more to address a possible threat inside the country, given the information that different federal agencies had accumulated. For example, Rice acknowledged that she was briefed in January 2001 about al Qaeda sleeper cells in the country. She also said an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential memo given to Bush stated that the FBI had al Qaeda operatives inside the United States under surveillance, and the agency had opened about 70 field investigations into those cells. The title of the memo itself was revealed publicly for the first time during the hearing as "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
Rice said she could not recall if she told Bush that al Qaeda cells were in the country. She noted that the memo did not recommend any further action be taken with regard to the cells and said she thought the FBI had the matter covered. Rice said the Aug. 6 memo, called a presidential daily brief, did not warn of attacks inside the United States.
"The country had taken the steps that it could, given that there was no threat reporting about what might happen inside the United States," she said. "The president knew that the FBI was pursuing this issue."
Rice's testimony varies from that of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who testified before the commission, as well as the Senate Judiciary and Senate Select Intelligence committees.
Edmonds was hired to retranslate material that was collected prior to Sept. 11 and worked for the FBI from Sept. 20, 2001 to March 2002. In her review, Edmonds said documents clearly showed that the hijackers were in the country and plotting to use airplanes as missiles.
"If they want to back up what they're saying, they should just make these documents public and let the documents speak for themselves," Edmonds said Thursday. "There are many documents out there that would prove what they knew, when they knew and how they knew."
Previous commission hearings also highlighted failures of agencies such as the CIA and FBI to collect and share information with each other and with other federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the State Department. Officials have testified that if specific information on al Qaeda operatives was disseminated, the State Department could have put them on watch lists and denied them visas, which would have prevented them from entering the country, and the FAA could have prevented them from flying on planes.
Commission members questioned why the Bush administration did not hold more meetings during the summer of 2001 between principals, such as Cabinet secretaries and the attorney general, to review threat intelligence and coordinate responses. Rice said the administration held 33 principals meeting before Sept. 11, three of which dealt with terrorism, but none addressed al Qaeda.
"The buck may stop with the president but the buck certainly goes directly through you as the principal adviser to the president on these issues," said former Rep. Timothy Roemer, D-Ind., who serves on the commission.
Rice said the National Security Council's counterterrorism security group was primarily responsible for crisis management and met more frequently as threat information increased. On July 5, 2001, the group convened a special meeting with representatives from the FAA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard. "At that meeting, these agencies were asked to take additional measures to increase security and surveillance," Rice said.
Rice said it would not have been possible to fix the structural problems inside the federal government within the first seven months of the Bush administration. The government has made significant structural reforms since Sept. 11, Rice said, such creating the Homeland Security Department and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, as well as implementing the 2001 Patriot Act.
"I think the question is why over all these years did we not address the structural problems that were there with the FBI, CIA and the homeland departments being scattered among many different departments," Rice told the commission.
Some family members of 9/11 victims reacted strongly to Rice's testimony.
"There's no excuse for the amount of information that was available not getting to the right people," said Stephen Push, director of Families of Sept. 11. "I can accept the fact that even if that information got to the right people, they still might not have been able to prevent 9/11. But what 9/11 revealed is that important threat information was in the system and not getting to the president, not getting to the national security adviser and not getting to other people who could have done something with it. Or, worse yet, it was getting to them and they weren't doing anything about it. Either way, it doesn't speak well for the system."
Beverly Eckert, a member of the 9/11 Family Steering Committee, said, "At some point, if the people at the top are aware of a problem, I think they need to introduce change."
She added: "I think they had sufficient information to disseminate warnings [and] I think a lot could have been done with the information they had by engaging as many people at all levels, including the American public, and I think that could have thwarted Sept. 11."