It was just a few weeks after September 11, 2001 when Condoleezza Rice accompanied the president on a trip to China for the APEC summit. In Shanghai Vice President Cheney appeared on a secure video conference line and delivered President George W. Bush this message:
“The Vice President came on the screen and said that the White House detectors have detected botulinum toxin, and we were all– those of who exposed were going to die,” Rice told me.
He said that?
“Yes, he said that. And I remember everybody just sort of freezing, and the President saying, ‘What was that? What was that, Dick?’” Rice, who was the National Security Advisor at the time, said.
Botulinum toxin is, according to the Center for Biosecurity, the “most poisonous substance known” and “extremely potent and lethal.”
The exposure time meant that she and those on the trip — Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chief of Staff Andy Card — were all at risk, Rice told me.
“We were just a little unnerved,” she said.
Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson sent the samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be tested on laboratory mice, she said. Rice writes in her new memoir, “No Higher Honor”, that after that call Bush directed her to “find out what the hell is going on” from her deputy, Steven Hadley.
“[Hadley] has this very dry sense of humor. And he said, ‘Let me put it this way. If the mice are feet up, we’re toast. If the mice are feet down, we’re fine,’” Rice told me.
“Wait a second. For 24 hours we didn’t know if the President had been poisoned?” I asked.
“For 24 hours, we were in Shanghai, we did not know the results of those tests,” she said.
Rice writes that they acted “as if nothing had happened,” but she wondered if “we’d get home before the toxin acted.”
Around noon the next day Hadley called Rice to give her the results – it was a false alarm.
“He said, ‘The mice are feet down.’ I went back to the President, and he was sitting next to the Chinese, and I said ‘The mice are feet down.’ And the President said, ‘That’s a good thing,’ and I’m sure the Chinese who probably got a translation thought it was some sort of code,” Rice told me.
Watch more of my interview with Rice tonight on Nightline.