WASHINGTON - For all Condoleezza Rice's practiced skill at defending President Bush, her long-awaited grilling by the Sept. 11 commission yesterday raised new questions about how attentive her boss was to the threat of a terrorist attack and whether he is following the right strategy for defending the country by waging war in Iraq.
Bush didn't have to read beyond the title of an intelligence document he received while on vacation in Texas on Aug. 6, 2001, to know that Osama bin Laden's ambition went beyond overseas attacks - which were the focus of most of what Rice said was the terrorist threat information received up to that point.
The title, revealed by Rice under questioning by commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, was "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
As she had in previous media interviews, the national security adviser described the document as lacking specifics. But the title appeared at odds with her claim that the memo "did not warn of attacks inside the United States" and that it was "based on old reporting."
The panel will doubtless want to question Bush about his reaction to the document when members interview him and Vice President Dick Cheney in private. Rice gave no indication that the memo triggered any alarm on the president's part or prompted him to launch a counterterror initiative.
"I'm told he was told this is historical information and there was nothing actionable in this," said Rice, who was not with the president when he received the document. She did not recall discussing with Bush the 70 FBI field investigations into suspected terror cells in the United States, which she testified were mentioned in the memo.
"There was no recommendation that we do something about this. The FBI was pursuing it," Rice testified.
Rice's claim that Bush sought to learn whether an attack was being planned inside the United States contradicted criticism by the former White House counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, who said the president "ignored" the terrorist threat before Sept. 11, 2001.
But Rice's testimony about the classified Aug. 6 memo lent support to Clarke's assertion that the Bush administration had not assigned an "urgent" priority to terrorism, and it buttressed other evidence that the president and his team considered other foreign policy goals to be as important, if not more so.
A commission report last month disclosed that two CIA counterterror officials were so worried about an impending disaster in the summer of 2001 that "they considered resigning and going public with their concerns."
Panel member Jamie S. Gorelick, a Democrat, contended that a lack of continued high-level engagement may have been the reason that the transportation secretary, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and some FBI field offices were not aware of mounting terror warnings that summer.
Rice testified that the administration had other priorities during its early months.
"We were determined to confront the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We were improving America's relations with the world's great powers. We had to change an Iraq policy that was making no progress against a hostile regime, which regularly shot at U.S. planes enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions," she said in her opening statement.
Statements by administration officials and Rice never described terrorism as a top priority, although that is not unusual with policies that are largely carried out through covert actions, secret investigations and quiet diplomacy. But Rice acknowledged yesterday that a key problem she referred to in a 2000 interview - the lack of coordination between the CIA and the FBI - had not been corrected before Sept. 11.
However important the issue of what priority the Bush administration gave terrorism before the attacks, it is overshadowed by debate over the president's decision to make the war in Iraq the centerpiece of his counterterror strategy.
Rice has repeatedly said that Clarke's focus on al-Qaida was too narrow and, as she reiterated yesterday, "tactical."
"We could fight a narrow war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, or we could fight a broad war against a global menace," she said in her opening statement.
But it was hard to reconcile her sunny description of the outcome of this "broad war" with the bloody violence still unfolding on the ground in Iraq and the continuing violence and lack of central authority in Afghanistan.
"Today, along with many allies, we are helping the people of Iraq and Afghanistan to build free societies," Rice said.
On the war in Iraq
Commission members have said they don't have the mandate to consider whether the war in Iraq is the right way to fight terrorism. But member Bob Kerrey, who supported the invasion of Iraq, couldn't pass up an opportunity yesterday to chastise the administration for its conduct of the post-war occupation.
"I'm terribly worried that the military tactics in Iraq are going to do a number of things, and they're all bad," said Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. "I think we're going to end up with civil war" if the United States continues to pursue its current military strategy.
That strategy, he warned, provides "an opportunity for al-Qaida to have increasing success at recruiting people to attack the United States."