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Last week, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made her long anticipated — and long demanded — appearance before the Sept. 11 commission. What emerged, unsurprisingly, was a virtual tug of war involving various versions of the truth, with Rice determined to stick to her position that the catastrophic attacks on New York and Washington could not have been prevented by the Bush administration. Rice’s testimony, in an example of pure Capitol Hill theater, took on rock concert proportions. Lines began forming outside the hearing room early in the morning of April 8, snaking out into the corridors of the Hart Senate Office Building even as the proceedings got under way around 9 a.m. Rice’s entrance was greeted with hushed whispers and exploding flashbulbs, befitting one of the best-known national security advisers in American history. Below are some choice moments from the proceedings. Advise and Consent. The question surrounding whether the White House would allow Rice to appear was centered on the principle that advisers to the president should not be called by Congress and forced to testify about recommendations given to the chief executive. But the Bush administration ultimately assented to Rice’s appearance on the belief that, since the commission isn’t a legislative body, no damaging precedent would be set by her testimony. “I don’t think your appearance today signals any retreat by the president from the notion that Congress should not be allowed to hale presidential aides down to the Capitol and question them,” said commissioner Jim Thompson, the former Republican governor of Illinois. And indeed, Rice spoke very little — if at all — about any advice she, or anyone else, provided President George W. Bush in the weeks prior to Sept. 11, 2001. Nor did she at any time claim any privilege with respect to any communications between her and the president. That may have been due in part to the choice Rice made to stick to certain ready-made themes or “talking points” that she returned to again and again, particularly the notions that there was no “silver bullet” that could have prevented the airliner attacks, that the United States was not on a “war footing” prior to those attacks, and that the “structure” of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency needed to be altered to combat domestic terrorism. Bushspeak by Proxy. Rice, who stayed smooth and controlled through most of her testimony, sounded the most awkward when she quoted her boss, the president. (Her answers tended to be long-winded, perhaps in an effort to keep the commissioners from asking more questions.) In addressing questions by commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton about Bush’s reported statements to The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward that he didn’t feel “a sense of urgency” in going after Osama bin Laden prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Rice said Bush’s statement had been taken out of context. Reading from a transcript, Rice said Woodward had asked Bush whether he wanted bin Laden killed before Sept. 11 and the president responded (as recounted by Rice), “Well, I hadn’t seen a plan to do that. I knew that we needed to — I think the appropriate word is ‘bring him to justice.’ And of course, this is something of a trick question in that notion of self-defense which is appropriate for … .” Mercifully, Rice stopped at that point, explaining, “I think you can see here a president struggling with whether he ought to be talking about pre-9/11 attempts to kill bin Laden.” The translation was appreciated. Kerreying On. Commissioner Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, emerged as Rice’s fiercest critic, lambasting her over the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and its failure to reciprocate for the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole in Yemen. Kerrey succeeded in one respect: He pushed the normally composed Rice to get personal. “I’m aware, Mr. Kerrey, of a speech you gave at the time that said perhaps the best thing we could do to respond to the Cole … was do something about the threat of Saddam Hussein,” Rice said, to applause from the crowd. A frustrated Kerrey replied: “So you’re saying that you didn’t have a military response because of my speech?” That Rice had Kerrey’s old remarks at the ready begs a question: Is the White House doing opposition research on the Sept. 11 commissioners? Kerrey also referred to Rice as “Dr. Clarke,” confusing her with former administration counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, so frequently that members of the audience laughed at first and then became somewhat embarrassed for the commissioner. “I don’t think I look like Dick Clarke,” Rice finally said. Honorable mention goes to former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who called the former Stanford professor and provost “Ms. Rice.” You Can’t Spell Bipartisan Without Partisan. Members of the Sept. 11 commission (officially known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) like to talk about the panel being “nonpartisan.” But an observer with no clue about the various political backgrounds of members wouldn’t have had much trouble identifying the sympathies of each member. Quick Quiz: Match the commissioner with the statement (answers below): (a) “Don’t filibuster me!” (b) “Doesn’t that beg that there should have been more accountability? That there should have been a resignation or two?” (c) “I don’t believe in beating dead horses, but there’s a bunch of lame ones running around here today.” Answers: (a) Former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey; (b) Former Democratic Rep. Timothy Roemer; (c) Former Republican Gov. Jim Thompson. Crowd Reaction. Just as there are differences among the commissioners regarding the evidence surrounding the administration’s response to the mounting terrorist threat in the summer of 2001, there are similar splits among the families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Many wore pictures of their deceased loved ones, pinned to their clothing, and at various points applauded during the testimony. The conclusion of Rice’s appearance offered both camps an opportunity to spin the media — and advocates on both sides attracted small swarms of reporters in the Hart hearing room. “I was very impressed by what Dr. Rice had to say,” said Debra Burlingame, the sister of the pilot of the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon, while Stephen Push, the husband of Lisa Raines, a passenger on that same doomed flight, disagreed. “I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed there was not more candor,” Push said. “Some of her answers were evasive.” No Biggie. Rice did her best to downplay any suggestion that the Clinton administration was more effective at combating terrorism than the current one. She was particularly quick to dismiss the interception of a terrorist at the Canadian border in December 1999, on the eve of the millennium celebration. Customs officials nabbed Ahmed Ressam, who was carrying bomb-making materials and purportedly planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. Ressam wasn’t caught as a result of a coordinated federal anti-terrorism strategy, Rice said, but “because a very alert customs agent saw that something was wrong.” Rice said that she had checked customs records of the period and “according to their records, they weren’t actually on alert at that point… . In any case, you cannot be dependent on the chance that something might come together.” No News Is Bad News. Much has been made of the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief delivered to the White House by then-counterterrorism strategist Clarke titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.” Rice contended that the memo was not a warning because it contained no details about specific threats against domestic targets. Indeed, a computer database search of the nation’s leading newspapers showed little concern over terrorism that day. The major headlines instead included: “Census Data Show a Sharp Increase in Living Standard,” “10 Wounded by Gunman in Tel Aviv,” and “Foreign Firms’ Layoffs Hit Home for U.S. Workers.” There was no mention of Osama bin Laden. That would change quite soon. James Oliphant is news editor of Legal Times, an affiliate of law.com.

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