WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States is safer now than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, but must not relent in fighting terrorism in Iraq and elsewhere, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.
``I think it's clear that we are safe _ safer _ but not really yet safe,'' Rice said.
``We've done a lot. In terms of homeland, we're more secure. Our ports are more secure. Our airports are more secure. We have a much stronger intelligence sharing operation,'' said Rice, who was President Bush's national security adviser when al-Qaida masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Rice defended the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of President Saddam Hussein despite persistent questions about any evidence of a link to the attacks.
She said ``Iraq is going through very difficult times'' but said the U.S. must help create an environment there that does not allow extremism to flourish.
``It's hard to imagine that different kind of environment with Saddam Hussein in power and Iraq at the center of a nexus between terrorism and conflict,'' Rice said on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
A Senate report released Friday disclosed for the first time that a CIA assessment in October 2005 said Saddam's government ``did not have a relationship, harbor or turn a blind eye toward'' al-Qaida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or his associates.
Rice said Sunday she does not remember seeing that particular report.
She maintained ``there were ties between Iraq and al-Qaida. Are we learning more now that we have access to people like Saddam Hussein's intelligence services? Of course we're going to learn more.''
Republican John Lehman, a former member of the Sept. 11 commission, said the U.S. has taken important steps to stem terrorism by capturing many of those responsible for planning the Sept. 11 attacks.
``We have gotten rid of most if not all theater commanders of al-Qaida, but we have not addressed as a nation the root cause ... this jihadist ideology that is being preached around the world, basically funded with Persian Gulf money.''
Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, also a commission member, said the war in Iraq ``has been a recruiting poster for jihadists throughout the Muslim world, and there are far more terrorists now than there were on 9/11. The Iraq invasion and occupation had nothing to do with terrorism. It had nothing to do with 9-11.''
The country's intelligence chief, John Negroponte, said that over the past five years, the U.S. has made major gains in ``connecting the dots'' about threats by sharing information among intelligence agencies.
``The American people should understand that the components of the nation's intelligence community are working together in ways that were almost unimaginable before Sept. 11,'' Negroponte wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.
Rice appeared on ``Fox News Sunday.'' Lehman and Ben-Veniste were on ABC's ``This Week.''