Rice Vs. Clarke

In her highly anticipated testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, Condoleezza Rice disputed a series of politically damaging claims by former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke that the Bush administration had failed to recognize the threat of al Qaeda prior to the attacks.

President Bush's national security adviser told the panel Thursday that Mr. Bush "understood the threat" of al Qaeda "and he understood its importance" in advance of the suicide hijackings.

But she offered no apology for the administration's failure to prevent the attacks – as Clarke did in his appearance before the commission two weeks ago. Instead, she said, "as an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt."

As for Clarke's claim that Mr. Bush pressed him to find a link between Iraq and Sept. 11, Rice said she didn't remember any such instructions but that "I'm quite certain the president never pushed anybody to twist the facts."

She added that Mr. Bush did want contingency plans against Iraq, in case the Iraqis were found to be responsible.

While acknowledging that Clarke had warned her in a brief memo about the threat of al Qaeda cells in the United States, Rice denied Clarke's charge that the administration moved slowly on recommendations that he and others made before the attacks.

She described Clarke's memo as "historical" and said it contained "no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States."

Rice said "nothing in this strategy would have done anything about 9-11," and added that "if we had in fact moved on the things that were in the original memos that we got from our counterterrorism people, we might have even gone off course."

She said she didn't remember if she discussed Clarke's memo with President Bush.

Rice described Clarke as a "very, very fine counterterrorism expert" and said the two of them "had a very good relationship."

However, she said, "Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism. He did brief the president later on cybersecurity, in July, but he, to my recollection, never asked."

She added that "my senior directors have an open door to come and say, 'I think the president needs to do this. I think the president needs to do that. He needs to make this phone call. He needs to hear this briefing.' It's not hard to get done."

Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton White House who also served in the two previous Republican administrations, said in his testimony last month that President Bush gave a lower priority to combating terrorism than had former President Clinton.

He also said the decision to invade Iraq had undermined the war on terror.