The 9/11 commissioners made a deal that each would question Rice for 10 minutes a piece, so everyone gets a shot. But the rule has been limiting the follow-up questions allowed for each commissioner. The questioning first got interesting when commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste took his turn almost an hour into the hearing. Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, first pressed Rice about whether she told the president about al-Qaida cells within the United States prior to August 6, 2001.
Ben-Veniste got testy when Rice wouldn't answer the question right away, because he only had 10 minutes. (His effort to get her to answer his question quickly brought a burst of applause from the audience, presumably filled with family members of 9/11 victims.) But before she answered, Rice said that Dick Clarke had told her in a memo, and it was "just a line or two," that there were al-Qaida cells in the United States. But "the question is, what did we need to do about that?" Rice said. She said she knew the FBI was conducting scores of full-field investigations into the cells. But there was "no recommendation that we do something," Rice said.
When pressed to answer the question, Rice said: "I really don't remember if I discussed that with the president. I knew very well the president was aware there were issues within the United States, but don't remember about al-Qaida."
Then Ben-Veniste questioned Rice about the highly-classified briefing memo from August 6, 2001, known as the President's Daily Brief. First, he wanted her to repeat the name of the briefing, which has not been released publicly. She said the title was: Osama bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States. Ben-Veniste called for the briefing memo to be declassified and suggested that it contained intelligence that Osama bin Laden advocated airplane hijackings, that al-Qaida cells were in the United States and that the group was planning attacks here.
But Rice insists the document, contains only "historical information" about bin Laden's mindset and plotting from the late 1990s and "did not in fact warn of any coming attacks inside the United States." This is how she described the PDB in her opening statement: "On August 6, 2001, the President's intelligence briefing included a response to questions he had earlier raised about any al-Qaida intentions to strike our homeland. The briefing item reviewed past intelligence reporting, mostly dating from the 1990s, regarding possible al-Qaida plans to attack inside the United States. It referred to uncorroborated reporting from 1998 that terrorists might attempt to hijack a U.S. aircraft in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing U.S.-held terrorists who had participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This briefing item was not prompted by any specific threat information. And it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles."
Rice insists this briefing was prompted by questions from the president about the al-Qaida threat, but the Washington Post reported recently that the CIA said the memo was not requested by Bush.