The testimony was exceptional in that Rice previously had declined to appear before the commission, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. She argued that her position as a special adviser to the president should shield her from public inquiry. She finally agreed to testify -- in public and under oath -- under extreme political and public pressure to do so.
The commission, which includes members of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, is investigating the run-up to the attacks and their aftermath to see if future attacks can be prevented. The attacks -- in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania -- killed some 3,000 people.
The administration of Republican President George W. Bush has come under criticism that it underestimated the terror threat before 11 September. Bush is seeking re-election this year and has been campaigning as a "war" president. There was concern Rice's testimony might prove damaging to his re-election effort.
In televised testimony, Rice kept to a script she had been using for weeks -- maintaining the position that the Bush administration could not have prevented the attacks.
She told the panel that in the months preceding 11 September, the White House knew Al-Qaeda was planning a major operation, but intelligence indicated it would happen outside the United States, perhaps in the Middle East or Africa.
Even if the intelligence had indicated a U.S. target, Rice said there is probably nothing the government could have done to prevent it.
"There was no 'silver bullet' that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks," Rice said. "In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies."
Her appearance before the commission was eagerly awaited, especially since the testimony a couple weeks ago of her former subordinate, Richard Clarke. Clarke had once served as Bush's chief antiterrorism analyst, but in his remarks to the commission he accused the Bush administration of minimizing the terrorist threat in the months before the attack.
Appraisals of Rice's performance appeared to divide along party lines. Members of Bush's Republican Party mostly praised Rice's testimony. Senator Susan Collins (Republican, Maine) was quoted as saying Rice did a "superb job." Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) said she was "impressive" and "forthright."
But Leon Fuerth, a high-ranking official in the administration of President Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor, said that in his opinion major weaknesses emerged. He pointed out that during her testimony Rice referred to what she called the Bush administration's "comprehensive strategy" to defeat Al-Qaeda. She implied that this went beyond what the previous Clinton administration was trying to achieve.
Fuerth said Rice was challenged by the commission on this assertion.
"One of the commissioners said that she had read the plan as submitted just before September 11 and compared it with the Clinton administration's final plans and can't find any functional differences between the two,” Fuerth said. “And so the question, logically, is: 'Did it take you nine months to produce a mouse?'"
Fuerth also said another of Rice's points was questionable. In her testimony, Rice pointed to the rivalry between the domestic security service (the FBI) and the CIA. She implied that this rivalry hindered efforts to prevent the attacks.
"We had a structural problem in the United States,” she said. “And that structural problem was that we did not share domestic and foreign intelligence in a way to make a product for policy makers, for good reasons -- for legal reasons, for cultural reasons -- a product that people could depend upon."
Fuerth said, however, that while Rice acknowledged the problem, there was no evidence the White House took any steps to end the rivalry.
"Although the [Bush] administration fully understood there were problems in assuring adequate communication between the FBI and the CIA, they failed to make sure that the message reached the grassroots of these organizations in an emphatic way," Fuerth said. "They also did not incorporate [a solution to] this problem into their big strategic plan."
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney later are to appear jointly before members of the commission, but they will not testify under oath. There will be no transcript; one panel member will be designated to take notes.
The commission is expected to make public its findings later this year.