The independent commission investigating the attacks of 9/11 commenced its hearings amid furious debate over accusations against the Bush administration from former counterterrorism official Richard A Clarke. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, defended their respective administrations’ performance in battling terrorism today, asserting that Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton were both acutely aware of the dangers from their first days in office.

“As the president’s principal foreign policy adviser, I was well aware, as was the president and all the members of the new national security team, that communism and fascism, our old foes of the past century, had been replaced by a new kind of enemy — terrorism,” Mr. Powell told the independent commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, during the first day of public testimony by top officials of the current and previous administrations.

“We were well aware that no nation is immune to terrorism,” Mr. Powell testified. “We were well aware that this adversary is not necessarily a state and it often has no clear return address. We knew that this monster is hydra-headed, many-tentacled.”

Mr. Powell said in his opening remarks that within days of being designated by President-elect Bush as the new secretary of state, and fully a month before the new administration was in place, he was being briefed in great detail by terrorism experts from the outgoing Clinton administration.

“A major component of this briefing was Al Qaeda’s growing threat to the United States, our interests around the world and Afghanistan’s role as a safe haven for Al Qaeda,” Mr. Powell recalled. “As a matter of fact, that part of the briefing got my attention, so much so that later I asked Mr. Armitage when he got sworn in to get directly involved in all these issues, and he did.” Richard L. Armitage is deputy secretary of state.

Mr. Powell’s opening remarks were not surprising and could have been prepared days in advance. But they served to highlight an issue that has dominated Washington since the weekend — the question of what the Bush and Clinton administrations knew about the possibility of terror attacks before 9/11, and how the Bush White House responded afterward.

The commission’s public hearings come amid a furious debate sparked by accusations from a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, Richard A. Clarke. In interviews and a new book, Mr. Clarke contends that the Bush administration did not heed warnings about Sept. 11 and that President Bush pushed him the day after the attacks to look for a link to Saddam Hussein.

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