WASHINGTON — In a moment of high political theater even by Washington standards, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice offered the most vigorous defense yet of the Bush administration's understanding of the terrorist threat in the months leading up to 9/11 - an appearance that may blunt some of the criticism leveled by former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, even while ensuring that the controversy continues to dominate the national spotlight in the short term.
Testifying before the 9/11 commission, Ms. Rice catalogued the various early steps taken against terrorism, describing in some detail the Bush administration's first national security policy directive, which called for the elimination of the Al Qaeda threat. Maintaining a calm and dispassionate tone, Rice offered no apology for the administration's failure to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center, but noted the various obstacles working against the administration. These ranged from structural and legal barriers preventing the flow of information between and within intelligence agencies, to the tendency of democratic societies to respond slowly to gathering threats.
Significantly, Rice also offered a strong defense of President Bush's broader approach to the war on terror in the wake of 9/11, including his decision to invade Iraq - a move that, given the rising violence in that country, could ultimately prove more politically damaging than anything the administration did or did not do in the run up to the 9/11 attacks.
Above all, she remained firm in arguing that the attacks were not preventable.
"No silver bullet could have prevented the 9/11 attacks," she said.
To some analysts, Rice's testimony may reinforce an overall impression that the Bush administration was no better at dealing with the terrorist threat than the Clinton administration had been. As a result, "it keeps alive questions of the things they could have done," says Larry Korb, a defense and foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress here.
The primary unanswered question from Rice's testimony, he adds, is why, if the administration took the terrorist threat as seriously as she claims, the principal actors did not get involved earlier. "If the top people are not involved, you don't have that same sense of urgency," says Mr. Korb, who served in the Reagan administration.
But to others, Rice's testimony served as an effective response to recent criticism - and will probably help ease some of the controversy. "I don't think the Bush administration could have been better served," says Michael McFaul, a security expert at Stanford University, and a longtime friend of Rice's. "This was a brilliant performance - and I say this as a critic of the Bush administration on a lot of things."
Rice's testimony, he predicts, will convince many viewers that the administration has "redoubled their efforts to fight terrorism - and will bolster them." Mr. McFaul notes that he disagrees with the administration's "bumper-sticker war on terrorism." Rice's statements made clear that they're not distinguishing between terrorists, but treating it as a broader war. "I think that is misplaced," he says. "But that won't affect the majority view."
Both Korb and McFaul agreed the political stakes surrounding the event had a noticeable - and unfortunate - impact on the proceedings: Democratic commission members often took a more antagonistic stance in their questioning, while Republican members tended to lob softballs.
Rice faced pointed questioning from the commission on two areas in particular: why the administration did not immediately pursue steps against Al Qaeda as suggested in a January 2001 memo by Mr. Clarke, and why the president did not respond with more urgency to an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing outlining Osama bin Laden's desire to strike in the US.
One of the testiest exchanges of the 3-hour hearing came when Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, probed Rice about FBI warnings in the Aug. 6 memo detailing evidence of possible preparations for hijackings in the US. Mr. Ben-Veniste asked Rice repeatedly for a "yes or no" answer - twice to applause from the gallery - on whether she told Bush of FBI evidence of Al Qaeda cells in the US. "I really don't remember whether I discussed that with the president," Rice responded, adding that the memo was largely a historical document that contained "nothing actionable" and "no new threat information."
Another tense moment came when former Sen. Bob Kerrey said he was tired of hearing the line that president was "tired of swatting at flies" - Bush's description of Clinton administration cruise missile attacks on Al Qaeda in response to the US embassy bombings in Africa - when Bush never responded to the attack on the USS Cole. Mr. Kerrey noted that former counterterrorism director Clarke had recommended military action in response to Cole bombing. But Rice said the Bush administration wanted a "strategic" rather than a "tactical response."
One of the main topics of the hearing was what Rice herself called the "tragic" failure through a string of administrations to undertake structural reforms in domestic agencies - and particularly those focused on intelligence gathering - to face the growing terrorist threat.
Rice emphasized the building realization within the Bush administration that "legal and bureaucratic impediments" of the pre-9/11 period prevented the government from "connect[ing] the dots" supplied by intelligence agencies that could have allowed for a strategy against terror attacks. When Commissioner Fred Fielding, a Republican, said "it still doesn't appear to us that [changes to date] have solved the institutional issue," Rice responded that the structural problem may not have been "solved" but that "critical progress" has been made, including creation of the Homeland Security office.
"Very important changes have taken place," she said, "but we have to be open to see what more can be done."
For the families of the victims of 9/11, the hearing represented the most visible and significant opportunity yet to pose the most serious questions of accountability to the Bush administration, and perhaps reach some sense of closure about the degree to which the loss of their family members could have been avoided.
After the hearing, several felt the administration was clearly lax in its response to the terrorist threat. "If [Bush and Rice] had paid attention to [the August 6th presidential briefing], my son would be alive," says Bob McIlvaine, whose son, Bobby, died in the World Trade Center attack. "I think it's a disgrace."
Pearl Williams drove 12 hours from Alabama to watch the hearing. "She was trying to blame the previous administration .... She should have come right out and admitted she had made mistakes," says Ms. Williams.
• David T. Cook and Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.