Rice Received Qaeda Warning Before 9/11

By PHILIP SHENON

New York Times

October 2, 2006

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 2 — A review of White House records has determined that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, did indeed brief Condoleezza Rice and other top officials on July 10, 2001 about looming threat from Al Qaeda, a State Department spokesman said on Monday evening.

The account by the spokesman, Sean McCormack, came hours after Ms. Rice, the secretary of state, told reporters aboard her airplane that she did not recall such a meeting and said it was “incomprehensible” she ignored dire terrorist threats two months before the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. McCormack also said the Bush administration had determined that the Sept. 11 commission had been briefed about the meeting, even though no mention of it appears in the commission’s report.

The question of whether such a meeting took place and what may have occurred has emerged as central since an account of it appeared in “State of Denial,” the new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post. The book said that Mr. Tenet and his top counterterrorism deputy, J. Cofer Black, believed that Ms. Rice had not taken their warnings seriously.

Ms. Rice told reporters aboard her plane on Sunday evening, as she began a trip to the Middle East, that she regarded that account as “simply ludicrous.” Mr. McCormack, in confirming later that the meeting had taken place, said that the White House review had found that Ms. Rice had asked Mr. Tenet to provide the same briefing to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, and John Ashcroft, the attorney general. Among those who attended the meting, Mr. McCormack said, was Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser. —

Mr. Woodward’s book reports that Mr. Tenet hurriedly arranged a White House meeting on to try to “shake Rice” into taking action on ominous intelligence reports warning of a potentially catastrophic attack by Al Qaeda, possibly within American borders.

The book says that Mr. Tenet and J. Cofer Black, who was then his counterterrorism chief, left the meeting in frustration, believing they had been given a “brush-off.”

Secretary Rice said Sunday night that there would have been no need for a “a kind of emergency meeting in which there was a need to shock me, given that every day we were meeting in the Oval Office going over the threat reporting” during the summer of 2001, when spy agencies were flooded with warnings of an imminent Al Qaeda attack.

“I don’t recall a so-called emergency meeting,” she continued, adding that “it was not unusual that George and I would meet, in a sense, unscheduled” in the White House, especially during such a tense period.

Ms. Rice said she had no specific recollection of meeting with Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black on July 10, 2001. Members of the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11 and the events leading up to them have said they were never told of a special White House meeting held on that date, and have questioned in recent days whether information about such a meeting may have been intentionally withheld from the panel.

“What I can be quite certain of is that I would remember if I was told, as this account apparently says, that there was about to be an attack in the United States,” she said. “The idea that I would have somehow ignored that, I find incomprehensible — especially given that in July, we’re getting a steady stream of quite alarmist reports of potential attacks.”

Mr. Woodward’s account says that Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black, who have refused to comment on the book but appear to have been important sources for Mr. Woodward, told Ms. Rice that “Al Qaeda was going to attack American interests, possibility within the United States itself.”

The book says that after the meeting, both men “felt they were not getting through to Rice — she was polite, but they felt the brush-off.”

Ms. Rice also disputed other material in Mr. Woodward’s book, including his report that the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was so disdainful of Ms. Rice during President Bush’s first term that he refused to return her telephone calls from the White House.

“Secretary Rumsfeld has never refused to return my phone calls,” she said. “The idea that he wasn’t returning my phone calls was simply ludicrous.”

She also disputed Mr. Woodward’s suggestion that she had urged that Mr. Rumsfeld be replaced in President Bush’s second term. “I did not try to get the president to change his Secretary of Defense,” she said.

Secretary Rice said that one of her top aides — Philip D. Zelikow, who was the executive director of the Sept. 11 commission before joining the State Department last year — had remained behind in Washington this week, in part to deal with the swirling controversy over Mr. .Woodward’s book.

“He does want to be able to help reconstruct, from the commission’s side, what happened,” Ms. Rice said.

In the wake of book’s publication, members of the Sept. 11 commission said that they were told nothing of any special July 10, 2001, meeting at the White House, although the panel questioned Ms. Rice, Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black in detail, sometimes under oath.

The dispute over Mr. Woodward’s book — and Ms. Rice’s depiction in it — threatened to overwhelm her scheduled week-long trip to the Middle East, where she is trying to encourage Arab leaders to bolster the beleaguered Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, and is seeking their help in dealing with the turmoil in Iraq.

On her first stop, in Saudi Arabia, Secretary Rice was scheduled to meet with King Abdullah tonight and ask him to “do more” to assist Mr. Abbas, who has attempted to press the radical Islamic group Hamas to work towards a peace settlement with Israel.