The United States had asked Pakistan to abandon the Taliban and bring Osama bin Laden to justice even three months before his Al Qaeda network carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks, National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday.
Testifying before a 10-member bipartisan commission probing the 9/11 attacks, Rice said Pakistan's response to the US demands was "rote, expressionless".
"Tragically, for all the language of war spoken before September 11, this country simply was not on a war footing," Rice said in a much-awaited testimony, watched over television by her boss, President George W Bush.
"There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks."
Within a month of taking office, Rice said, Bush sent "a strong, private message" to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, "urging him to use his influence with the Taliban to bring bin Laden to justice and to close down Al Qaeda training camps".
Secretary of State Colin Powell "actively urged the Pakistanis, including Musharraf himself, to abandon support for the Taliban", she said.
Rice revealed that she herself met Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri in her office three months before the attacks and "delivered a very tough message, which was met with a rote, expressionless response".
Rice said under oath that before 9/11, it was impossible to move strategically against the Taliban, which was harbouring the Al Qaeda, because it had Pakistan's support.
"Al Qaeda was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided Al Qaeda with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them. This was not easy. Not that we hadn't tried," she told the inquiry.
She said the new approach to Pakistan combined carrots and sticks to persuade it to drop support for the Taliban. "And we began to change our approach to India, to preserve stability on the subcontinent."
Rice admitted that more precautions could have been taken to prevent the attacks had there been greater coordination and cooperation among the various intelligence agencies after the Federal Bureau of Investigation field offices intercepted two of the hijackers around at the turn of the millennium.
But in those days the field offices would not communicate promptly with the FBI, which in turn was barred from coordinating with the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies, she said, describing these as structural and cultural weaknesses.
Even with those precautions, there was no guarantee that 9/11 could have been prevented, she said, adding all the "chatter" (intercepted messages) were either about foreign countries or imprecise warnings of "big things" happening in the US, not actionable intelligence.
"Today, as a result of the actions taken by the administration and congress, the US is safer, but not safe enough," she said.
"Before 9/11, the Al Qaeda was at war with the US, but the US was not at war against the terrorists. Now the US is."
She stressed on the heightened attention the US started paying to the war on terrorism and to preventing more states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and said the administration was working actively with the international community on Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
"One thing the global war on terrorism has allowed us to do," she said, "is not to focus just on the Al Qaeda. We have enlisted countries around the world. Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism."
She assured the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that the administration was receiving full cooperation from Saudi Arabia.
She defended the decision not to retaliate immediately for the attack on the USS Cole because a tit for tat attack would only have emboldened the Al Qaeda.
Rice conceded that the then counter-terrorism chief at the White House, Richard Clarke, did warn in a memorandum that hundreds might die in an attack on the US by the Al Qaeda unless adequate precautions were taken, but she insisted that it was not an operational plan but one intended to buck her up.
She strongly denied that Bush did not display sufficient urgency about the problem, noting that he received more than 40 briefings on Al Qaeda from CIA Director George Tenet.
Rice said she coordinated daily with Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Powell and also had meetings with Tenet on terrorism.
Bush, Rice said, changed the strategy against the Al Qaeda from one of retaliation to one of elimination.
The president said he was not for "swatting flies" but going after the Al Qaeda network and those who harboured them, namely the Taliban. That meant dealing with the complexities of the region, for the Taliban was supported by Pakistan.
She strongly denied that Bush or the Pentagon was concerned more about Iraq than about Al Qaeda.
She said as an officer on duty, that day "I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt".
Rice's testimony could play a crucial role in Bush's chances of being re-elected on November 2. It could also affect the future prospects of Rice, who is spoken of as a future secretary of state or defence.
Asked by commission Vice-Chairman Lee Hemilton how the US could get to the source of the problem, that is, resentment against it, Rice said she and the president believed that this could be dealt with only if the generational issues were addressed.
"We will see some small victories," she said, but one of the difficult issues is the "freedom deficit" in West Asia. But there are reformist trends in West Asia in places like Bahrain and Jordan.
She pointed out that when the founding fathers said all men and women are created equal, "they did not mean me."
Building a multi-ethnic democracy, she said, is going to be very hard and it is going to take time. She had no doubt that "over the long run, we will change the nature" of West Asia.
That is why, she said, Iraq is so important. Iraqis are struggling to create a multi-ethnic democracy that works. When they succeed, "they will have made a big change in the whole of the Arab world".
Rice told the commission that Rumsfeld first raised the subject of Iraq.
"Given that this was a global war on terror, should we look not just at Afghanistan but should we look at doing something against Iraq? There was a discussion of that," she said.
Rice said that although the subject of Iraq was raised at the time, it was decided that the focus should be on Afghanistan.
"The president listened to all of his advisers. I can tell you that when he went around the table and asked his advisers what he should do, not a single one of his principal advisers advised doing anything against Iraq. It was all to Afghanistan.
"By the time that we got to Camp David and began to plan for what we would do in response, what was rolled out on the table was Afghanistan -- a map of Afghanistan."
"I believe we have made it harder" for the terrorists to attack the US, she said, adding, "we are safer, but not safe enough."
She pointed out that while the terrorists have to succeed only once, the security services have to be right 100 per cent of the time.
Rice said that the US is an open society and the precautions taken should not be at the expense of being that. "We will never be able to harden enough to prevent every attack. But we have increased worldwide attention to the problem."