SHANNON, Ireland—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she cannot recall then-CIA chief George Tenet warning her of an impending al-Qaida attack in the United States, as a new book claims he did two months before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"What I am 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, and the idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible," Rice said Sunday.
Rice was President George W. Bush's national security adviser in 2001, when Bob Woodward's book "State of Denial" outlines the July 10 meeting in which Tenet said he warned Rice. Cofer Black, the CIA's top counterterror officer, was also present.
"I don't know that this meeting took place, but what I really don't know, what I'm quite certain of, is that it was not a meeting in which I was told there was an impending attack and I refused to respond," Rice said.
Speaking to reporters en route to Saudi Arabia and other stops in the Middle East, Rice said she met with Tenet daily at that point and has no memory of the wake-up call from Tenet described in the book.
"It kind of doesn't ring true that you have to shock me into something I was very involved in," Rice said.
There was near constant discussion of possible attacks overseas, and high alarm, Rice said.
Meanwhile, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday that he should have been notified of any such report dealing with a pending attack on the United States. "It just occurred to me how disappointing it was that they didn't come to me with this type of information," Ashcroft said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The FBI is responsible for domestic terrorism," Ashcroft said. He said both Tenet and Black should have been aware that he had pressed for a more aggressive policy in going after bin Laden and his followers in the United States and should have briefed him as well. Rice knew of this advocacy, he suggested.
According to the Sept. 11 Commission, Ashcroft was briefed on July 5, 2001, "warning that a significant terrorist attack was imminent." The report noted that the briefing addressed only threats outside the United States.
Woodward wrote that the meeting among Tenet, Rice and Black stood out in the minds of Tenet and Black as the "starkest warning they had given the White House" on al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his network.
A former intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Sept. 11 Commission and an earlier joint congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks were both informed of Tenet's and Black's meeting with Rice, when Tenet warned Rice that a significant attack was coming.
In a closed, classified session at CIA headquarters, Tenet told Sept. 11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, the commission's executive director Phil Zelikow and other commission staff about Rice's meeting with Tenet and Black, the official said.
The former intelligence official said the commission kept a transcript of that Jan. 28, 2004 session. A second official familiar with the document, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed its existence.
But though Tenet and Black warned Rice in the starkest terms of the prospects for attack, she brushed them off, Woodward reiterated Monday. He told NBC's "Today" show that Black told him the two men were so emphatic, it amounted to "holding a gun to her head" and doing everything except pulling the trigger.
Black reportedly laid out secret intercepts and other data "showing the increasing likelihood that al-Qaida would soon attack the United States." Tenet was so worried that he called Rice from his car and asked to see her right away, the book said.
"Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice," Woodward wrote. "She was polite, but they felt the brush-off."
Rice referred to the session as "the supposed meeting" and noted that it is not part of the independent Sept. 11 Commission's report.
"I remember that George was very worried and he expressed that," Rice told reporters. "We were all very worried because the threat reporting was quite intense. The problem was that it was also quite nebulous."
Neither Black nor Tenet has commented on the contents of Woodward's book.
Rice, who was promoted to secretary of state in Bush's second term, also said she never argued that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should be fired. The book's suggestion that Rumsfeld would not take her calls is "ludicrous," Rice said.
Rumsfeld and Rice are not close, and he is often considered her rival in administration decision-making. Woodward wrote that then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card twice tried to get Bush to sack Rumsfeld and replace him with Bush family counselor James A. Baker III, and that both then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Rice backed the plan.
Woodward interviewed Rice for his new book.
Rice's latest Middle East trip is focused on strengthening support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other moderate Arab leaders after a series of setbacks for democratic and moderate forces in the region.
— The Associated Press