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Condoleezza Rice testifies before 9/11 commission

From Wolf Blitzer

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Condoleezza Rice
George W. Bush
Acts of terror

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The 9/11 commission Chairman Thomas Kean began Thursday's hearing with these words:

"Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Kean asked.

"I do," said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

And with that, Rice delivered a carefully worded 25-minute opening statement -- with this bottom line:

"There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks," Rice said.

Unlike her former counterterrorism deputy Richard Clarke, she did not formally apologize to the families of the 9/11 victims, some of whom were in the audience.

She strongly defended President Bush's record in the months leading up to 9/11 but acknowledged that long-standing legal barriers preventing the FBI and the CIA from communicating with each other were a key problem.

"In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States," Rice said.

Changes did not occur until after September 11, 2001.

During the occasionally acrimonious questioning, she repeatedly denied that she and the president had been negligent in ignoring the al Qaeda terror threat.

Still, she disclosed that the U.S. intelligence community had intercepted communications from al Qaeda suspects during the summer of 2001 that included these words:

"Unbelievable news in the coming weeks;" "Big event ... There will be a very, very, very, very big uproar;" and "There will be attacks in the near future."

Rice described these interceptions as "troubling, yes."

But she added, "They don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how."

Democratic commissioners pressed hardest for her to concede that the president and his administration could and should have done more.

One exchange between Rice and commission member and former Sen. Bob Kerrey was particularly heated:

Kerrey: "You said the president was tired of swatting flies. Can you tell me one example when the president swatted a fly when it came to al Qaeda? Prior to 9/11."

Rice: "I think what the president was speaking to was ..."

Kerrey: "No, no, what fly had he swatted?"

Rice: "Well, the disruptions abroad was what he was really focusing on. The CIA would go after Abu Zubaydah, go after this guy and ..."

Kerrey: "Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once on the 20th of August, 1998. We didn't swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?"

Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste asked Rice, "Did you tell the president anytime prior to August 6th, of the existence of al Qaeda cells in the United States?"

Rice answered, "I really don't remember, commissioner, whether I discussed it with the president."

August 6 is significant because it was on that day -- while the president was on vacation in Crawford, Texas -- when, Rice says, the CIA briefed the president on al Qaeda.

In that highly-classified CIA briefing -- entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" -- there were, Rice admitted, references to earlier warnings of al Qaeda plans to hijack passenger airliners.

She says the warnings were not specific and that the briefings did not raise the possibility that terrorists would use airplanes as missiles.

But what about now?

"I believe that we have really hurt the al Qaeda network. We have not destroyed it," said Rice.

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