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Central points unresolved after Rice testimony

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WASHINGTON — The blizzard of words in Condoleezza Rice's testimony Thursday did not resolve central points about what the government knew, should have known, did and should have done before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The extraordinary session cast fresh attention, for example, on a CIA memo sent to President Bush a little more than a month before the attacks with the newly disclosed and pointed title: "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

But President Bush's national security adviser asserted it was not a "warning document," but rather a historical analysis of terrorism that mentioned, along with many other things, the possibility of hijackings.

In a new, if narrower, source of contention, Rice said flatly that her counterterrorism chief at the time, Richard Clarke, never asked to meet directly with Bush to discuss the threat posed by al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001.

Clarke insisted otherwise in a TV interview on Thursday, saying he asked for such a meeting several times, and was told "if I just held on, eventually they would get to it." It didn't happen.

So it went on point after point: Rice vs. Clarke. Rice vs. Democratic members of the commission studying the failures of Sept. 11.

Rice's characterizations of the government's preparations against terrorism before the attacks did not always fit together neatly, the result, perhaps, of summarizing a complex time when indications of trouble from terrorists were growing even as many pressing foreign policy matters demanded attention.

For example, she said of al-Qaida, "President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance." This, despite the president's admission — in a less contentious time — that he had not been sufficiently focused on Osama bin Laden.

As he put it in Bob Woodward's book, "Bush at War": "I was not on point. I have no hesitancy about going after him. But I didn't feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling."

Although Rice described in detail the government's gathering strategy to go after the al-Qaida terrorist network before Sept. 11, she said it would be wrong to characterize the United States — either during the Clinton administration or in the early months of Bush's presidency — as being at war against terrorists.

"We weren't on war footing," she testified. "We weren't behaving in that way."

Yet, at another point, she said, "The president of the United States had us at battle stations during this period of time," directing the CIA, FBI, Pentagon and other agencies to prepare for the possibility terrorists might strike U.S. interests abroad.

Much attention was paid to what constitutes a plan and a warning — questions that go to the core of whether the Bush administration could reasonably have been expected to head off the attacks.

Commissioners have seen a classified Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing memo in which the CIA addressed bin Laden's interest in attacking inside the United States and made some reference to hijackings as a possible tool of terrorists. Some commissioners say the memo contains threat information the government could have acted on, and they are trying to get it released.

"It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information," Rice said. "And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States."

She also played down the significance of a note Clarke sent to her one week before the attacks in which, according to the commission's summary, he challenged policymakers to "imagine a day after a terrorist attack, with hundreds of Americans dead," when they would be asking themselves what they could have done to prevent it.

Top national security officials adopted a strategy against al-Qaida that day, Sept. 4, that had been months in the making.

Rice said Clarke's note "was not a premonition, nor a warning" about al-Qaida, but rather encouragement that she not let the federal bureaucracy undermine the new strategy against the terrorists.

"A warning is when you have something that suggests that an attack is impending," she said of the Aug. 6 and Sept. 4 correspondence. "And we did not have ... threat information that was, in any way, specific enough to suggest that something was coming in the United States. "