Rice Leads Counterattack

And Defends Her Refusal To Testify Publicly Before The 9/11 Panel

What was said on the Bush administration's former counterterrorism chief, reverberated like thunder this past week. On Capitol Hill, a parade of top officials from both the Bush and Clinton administrations testified publicly under oath before the commission investigating the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor - the person the commission wanted to hear from most - the White House refused to make available citing executive privilege. But while she says she couldn't talk publicly to the commission - Dr. Rice did talk to us this morning in Washington.

Ed Bradley met the national security advisor in the Old Executive Office building next to the White House and asked about her refusal to testify.



ED BRADLEY:
The secretary of state, defense, the director of the CIA, have all testified in public under oath before the commission. If - if you can talk to us and other news programs, why can't you talk to the commission in public and under oath?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify. I would really like to do that. But there is an important principle here ... it is a longstanding principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.

ED BRADLEY:
But there are some people who look at this and say, "But this - this was an unprecedented event. Nothing like this ever happened to this country before. And this is an occasion where you can put that executive privilege aside. It's a big enough issue to talk in public."

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
It is an unprecedented event. We've said that many, many times. But this commission is rightly not concentrating on what happened on the day of September 11 ... So, this is not a matter of what happened on that day, as extraordinary as it is - as it was. This is a matter of policy. And we have yet to find an example of a national security advisor, sitting national security advisor, who has - been willing to testify on matters of policy.

The commission is investigating the circumstances surrounding the 9/11 attacks. The star witness was Richard Clarke, the president's former counter-terrorism chief whose new book has become a best seller. In it Clarke alleges that the Bush administration failed to take the threat from al Qaeda seriously and that the 9 /11 attacks were a pretext for the Bush administration to go to war in Iraq. The administration's reaction was immediate and ferocious. The attacks continued this morning on the Sunday talk shows.

What has the Bush administration most up in arms is the explosive allegation Richard Clarke made in his book and to Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes last week that at a meeting on September 12 in the White House situation room - one day after the attacks - President Bush tried to intimidate Clarke into finding a link between 9/11 and Iraq.



I said 'Mr. President, we've done this before. We - we've been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind, there's no connection.' He came back at me and said, 'Iraq, Saddam - find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean, that we should come back with that answer.

ED BRADLEY::
What's your reaction to Clarke's description?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
I - I have never seen the president say an - anything to an - people in an intimidating way, to try to get a particular answer out of them. I know this president very well. And the president doesn't talk to his staff in an intimidating way to ask them to produce information - that is false.

All week long, the White House said it had no recollection that the September 12 meeting ever took place, and that it had no record that President Bush was even in the situation room that day. But two days ago, they changed their story, saying the meeting did happen.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
The president asked, I believe - though none of us recall the specific - conversation, the president asked a perfectly logical question. We'd just been hit and hit hard. Was - did Iraq have anything to do with this? Were they complicit in it? This was a country with which we'd been to war a couple of times, that were firing at our airplanes in - the no-fly zone. It made perfectly good sense to ask about Iraq. I will tell you, Ed, when we went to Afghani - to- Camp David to plan our response to the al Qaeda attack, it was the map of Afghanistan that was rolled out on the table. It was Afghanistan that became the focus of - the - American response. And - Iraq was - put aside with the exception of - worrying about whether Iraq might try and take - advantage of us in some way. The president focused our energies and our attention on winning in Afghanistan, and expelling the Taliban and thereby, expelling al Qaeda.

ED BRADLEY::
But the appearance here, because there are other examples of countries with state-sponsored terrorism: Iran, Libya, Syria, he didn't ask him about that. He asked just about Iraq. The perception is, people listening to what Clarke had to say, is that the president was preoccupied with Iraq.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Given our relationship with Iraq - which was probably the most actively - hostile relationship in which we were involved I think that it's a perfectly - logical question when we looked to retaliation, yes, we asked the question given that this is a global war on terrorism, should we look - at other threats?

ED BRADLEY::
Let - let's move on. Clarke has alleged that the Bush administration underestimated the threat from - from al Qaeda, didn't act as if terrorism was an imminent and urgent problem. Was it?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Of course it was an urgent - problem. I would like very much to know what more could have been done - given that it was an urgent problem. We were looking for a more comprehensive plan to eliminate al Qaeda. But we weren't sitting still while that plan was developing. We were continuing to pursue the policies that the Clinton administration had pursued.

ED BRADLEY::
But even the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton, has said that the Bush administration pushed terrorism, and I'm quoting here, farther to the back burner.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
I just don't agree. I don't know, Ed, how after - coming into office, inheriting policies that had been in place for at least - three of the eight years of the Clinton administration, we could've done more than to continue those policies while we developed more robust policies.

ED BRADLEY::
After 9/11, Bob Woodward wrote a book in which he had incredible access and interviewed the president of the United States. He quotes President Bush as saying that he didn't feel a sense of urgency about Osama bin Laden. Woodward wrote that bin Laden was not the president's focus or that of his nationally security team. You're saying that the administration says fighting terrorism and al-Qaeda has been a top priority since the beginning.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
I'm saying that the administration took seriously the threat - let's talk about what we did.

ED BRADLEY::
But no, I understand-

ED BRADLEY::
But you - you listed –

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
-priority.

ED BRADLEY::
You'd listed the things that you'd done. But here is the perception. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at that time says you pushed it to the back burner. The former Secretary of the Treasury says it was not a priority. Mr. Clarke says it was not a priority. And at least, according to Bob Woodward, who talked with the president, he is saying that for the president, it wasn't urgent. He didn't have a sense of urgency about al Qaeda. That's the perception here.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Ed, I don't know what a sense of urgency - any greater than the one that we had, would have caused us to do differently.

ED BRADLEY::
We've had this war on terrorism since - concentrated, since 9/11. But it's been reported that if you look at the 30 months since 9/11, there have been more attacks by al Qaeda than in the 30 months prior to 9/11. So, what effect is this taking out two-thirds of their leadership-

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
We are - being attacked by them because - they know that we're at war with them. And they're going to continue to attack.

ED BRADLEY::
But here – here - here's what I'm saying. You- you have a 30-month period leading up to 9 /11 in which you have fewer attacks than the 30 months after, is when you had this war.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Ed, I think that's the wrong way to look at it, with - with all due respect. I think you have to look back to - the '80s, and most certainly the '90s, when what was happening was that the terrorist attacks were getting bolder. They were getting more imaginative. They were getting more daring. These attacks were getting bolder and they were getting more daring. And that's because the terrorists were getting a sense of inevitability of their victory. We were not aggressively going after them. They believed that they were going to win. They saw us cut and run in Somalia. They go all the way back to the fact that the Marines left Beirut after the bombing of the - barracks. They believed that if we took - casualties, we would not respond. And what they've been surprised by is the fact that this has, this time, been a - a launching of an all-out war on them. And yet, they're going to continue to try to attack. They're going to succeed sometimes. But they are going to be defeated.

ED BRADLEY::
The decision to go to war with Iraq - Nearly 600 American soldiers had died, thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed. Given the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and there's no proof that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11 or al Qaeda, the country is split about why we're even in Iraq and if we're fighting the right war.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
The war on terrorism is a broad war, not a narrow war. And Iraq, one of the most dangerous regimes, I think the most dangerous regime in the world's most dangerous region, in the Middle East - is a big reason, or was under Saddam Hussein, a big reason for instability in the regions, for threats to the United States. He had used weapons of mass destruction. He had the intent and was still developing the capability to do so. Saddam Hussein's regime was very dangerous. And now that Iraq has been liberated and that Iraq has a chance to be a stable democracy, the world is a lot safer. And the war on terrorism is well served by the victory in Iraq.

Amidst all the testimony last week about the facts surrounding 9/11, Richard Clarke took a moment to apologize to the families of those who were killed in the attacks.

ED BRADLEY::
How - how did you feel when he made that apology?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE:
Well, I don't think that there is anyone who is not sorry for the terrible loss that - these families endured. And indeed, who doesn't feel the deep tragedy that the country went through on September 11? I do think it's important that we keep focused on who did this to us. Because after all this was an act of war.

ED BRADLEY::
But my question is, how did his apology make you feel? Did you think he was grandstanding? Did you think it was sincere?

CONDOLEZZA RICE:
I - I'm not going to - to question what - Dick Clarke was or was not feeling. I think from my point of view, the families need to know that - everybody understands the deep loss.

ED BRADLEY::
Will the families of those people who were killed hear an apology from you? Do you think that would be appropriate?

CONDOLEZZA RICE:
The families, I think, have heard from this president that - and from me, and from me personally in some cases in that field in Pennsylvania or at the World Trade Center, how - deeply sorry everyone is for the loss that they endured. You couldn't be human and not feel the horror of that day. We do need to stay focused on what happened to us that day. And the best thing that we can do for the memory of the victims, the best thing that we can do for the future of this country, is to focus on those who did this to us.
  • Rebecca Leung

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