Rice defends White House on 9/11

She also defended President George W Bush’s counter-terrorism strategy while admitting the country could have been better prepared.

In almost three hours of intense, nationally televised questioning, Ms Rice said that “structural” and legal problems prevented agencies from working together to counter terrorism before the 2001 attacks that left about 3,000 dead.

But she insisted that President Bush had understood the al-Qaeda threat as soon as he took office and that it took priority over Iraq.

Her long-awaited testimony in front of the commission sought to defuse politically damaging statements from former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, ahead of November’s Presidential elections.

“For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,” Ms Rice said.

The commission’s leaders have already said they believe the attacks could have been prevented, but Ms Rice insisted the United States was “blind” to the impending disaster.

“There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.”

The hearing’s business-like tone was punctured by sharp questions from commission members, which at points drew applause from the overflow audience.

The most contentious exchanges involved a classified memo sent to President Bush about a month before the attacks that may have warned that al-Qaeda was planning to hijack US airliners.

“It had a discussion of whether or not they might use hijacking to try and free a prisoner who was being held in the United States,” she said.

“But I can also tell you that there was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington DC. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where.”

The White House, which initially opposed an inquiry into the attacks, has refused to release that memo as well as other documents dating to President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Families of the September 11 victims were among the audience, and some said they were disappointed that Rice did not offer an apology for the government’s failure to prevent the attacks.

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