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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New to Job, Rice Focused on Traditional Fears

WASHINGTON -- Condoleezza Rice was, perhaps, in the best position to galvanize the U.S. government to prevent terrorist attacks before Sept. 11, 2001. As national security adviser she sat at the nexus of the intelligence, foreign policy, defense and law enforcement agencies that shared responsibility for counterterrorism.

That is why, as the White House scrambles to defend against charges that President George W. Bush and his advisers paid too little heed before Sept. 11 to potential for terror attacks, Rice finds herself at the center of the storm.

On Thursday, testifying publicly in front of the commission examining the attacks, she will be pressed to square her account of events -- one of heightened alerts and the development of new policies to oust al-Qaida and the Taliban -- with accusations by Richard Clarke, who served under her as counterterrorism adviser, that the new administration paid far less attention to these threats than President Bill Clinton's did. Her task seemed to become even more difficult Sunday, when the commission said that it was likely to conclude that the Sept. 11 attacks were preventable.

Senior White House aides concede that Bush has a huge amount riding on how Rice does. "She's the one who can make our most forceful case," one close colleague of Rice said. "They don't call her the Warrior Princess for nothing," a reference to the moniker her staff gave her after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But a review of the record, from testimony and interviews, suggests that Rice faces a daunting challenge because her own focus until Sept. 11 was usually fixed on matters other than terrorism, for reasons that had to do with her own background, her management style and the unusually close, personal nature of her relationship with Bush.

Coit Blacker, a longtime friend and colleague of Rice at Stanford who is now director of that university's Institute for International Studies, said any blind spots she had upon taking office in January 2001 might have been rooted in the fact that she emerged from a generation of scholars trained to focus on great-power politics, with terrorism seen as a troubling but subordinate element.

"It wasn't until after Sept. 11 that most of us realized that for the first time in human history," Blacker said, "a nonstate actor, a group of religious extremists at the very bottom of the international system, had the capability to inflict devastating damage on the very pinnacle of the international system."

Rice, 49, is widely recognized as one of the most poised and effective public advocates of the administration. Even so, as she prepares for her public testimony this week, friends have been warning her that her personal style -- which combines fierce loyalty to the president with the abiding self-confidence of a woman who ascended to powerful jobs, including the No. 2 post at Stanford, at a young age -- leaves her prone to potential missteps. "Her attention was surely engaged," said another former senior official, also an admirer, who dealt with her every day on these issues before and after Sept. 11. "Did she register how serious the threat was to the United States of America? I don't know; that's what she'll have to answer."

Still, the reality is that Rice has virtually no public utterances about al-Qaida to point to as evidence that she was as engaged in the issue as she was in Bush's other foreign policy agendas.

In February 2001, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, told Congress that terrorism was the top threat facing the United States.

Even four months later, as intelligence warnings about possible attacks by al-Qaida began to surge, a June 2001 address that Rice delivered to the Council on Foreign Relations on "Foreign Policy Priorities and Challenges of the Administration" made no mention of terrorism.

And the next month, speaking with a reporter over a cup of coffee under an outdoor cafe umbrella during Bush's first major summit of world leaders in Genoa, Italy -- a meeting many feared could become an al-Qaida target -- she expressed concern about the frenzy of terror reports but indicated her biggest worry was a strike in the Mideast.

By the time she reached Genoa, Rice had created a hierarchical, corporate style in which she largely delegated policy development to others. To oversee the creation of a new strategy on counterterrorism, she relied on her deputy, Stephen Hadley. For Rice, in part, that preserved time to concentrate on issues more familiar to her, to tutor Bush and to translate his instincts and decisions into policy.

Her public speeches and interviews tended to focus on more orthodox foreign-policy issues, including relations with China; the new relationship with President Vladimir Putin; and the threat posed by Iraq and Iran, all of which she had emphasized in a lengthy essay in the January 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs. That essay became the blueprint for Bush's presidential campaign, in which he never mentioned al-Qaida.

Indeed, Rice's biggest vulnerability may have been that when she came to Washington in 2001, she was determined to quickly tackle three tasks that had little to do with terrorism: refocusing the nation's diplomacy on big-power politics, chiefly Russia and China; fulfilling Bush's pledge of a missile-defense system; and streamlining the security council, getting it out of what she called "operational matters."

Her background, as she acknowledged, was as "a Europeanist." And when she briefly dropped her self-confident tone, Rice, then a professor at Stanford, said in 2000 that as a campaign adviser to Bush, she found herself "pressed to understand parts of the world that have not been part of my scope."

Among those relatively unfamiliar issues was the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Mideast and South Asia. Rice has said, "we did everything we knew how to do" to combat terrorism in the months before the attack.