updated 3/9/2004 12:37:56 PM ET 2004-03-09T17:37:56

President Bush will privately "answer all the questions” raised by a federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House said Tuesday, dropping a one-hour limit on the president’s testimony.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan backed away from previous statements indicating the president's private testimony before the commission's chairman and vice chairman would be limited to one hour, saying, “The president will answer all the questions that they’re going to ask.”

The shift came on the heels of accusations by presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that Bush was “stonewalling” investigations of the terrorist attacks and U.S. intelligence failures.

“It appears he doesn’t want to let the facts get in the way of his campaign,” McClellan said of the Massachusetts senator.

‘Unprecedented cooperation’
"This administration has provided unprecedented cooperation to the 9-11 commission,” he added. “It provided access to every single bit of information that they have requested.”

McClellan’s comments suggested the administration had undergone a second change of heart about the commission. Bush originally had opposed the panel’s request for a two-month extension of its work but he eventually relented.

The 10-member commission sought interviews with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about what the administration knew before the attacks, potentially a sensitive subject in an election year.

Bush had agreed to meet privately for an hour with the chairman and vice chairman of the commission, but said it was unnecessary for him to testify publicly. His appearance has not yet been scheduled.

Cheney also has said he would meet with some commissioners.

Former President Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, have consented to unlimited questioning in private.

Commission members are seeking public testimony from Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who has refused to appear on the advice of White House lawyers. Rice has testified in private before the commission.

Government missteps highlighted
In previous hearings, the commission has highlighted government missteps before the 2001 attacks, including miscommunications about al-Qaida operatives dating back to the mid-1990s and hijackers who were allowed to enter the United States repeatedly despite lacking proper visa documentation. Up to now, however, the panel has not assigned blame beyond midlevel officials in federal agencies.

The commission will publicly question top counterterror officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations at  hearings March 23-24.

Among those scheduled to testify are Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell. Also on the witness list are the three main security officials of the former Clinton administration: Defense Secretary William Cohen, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security adviser Sandy Berger.

On April 13-14, the commission will examine intelligence failures; its agenda for June 8-9 covers national crisis management. Both hearings will be Washington.

The panel also will review, at a two-day hearing in New York City on May 18-19, the effectiveness of the nation’s emergency response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and details of the plot.

Congress established the Sept. 11 panel, officially the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, to study the nation’s preparedness for and response to the attacks and to recommend safeguards against similar disasters.

The commission was to finish its work May 27, but members asked last month for a two-month extension, citing repeated delays because of disputes with the administration over access to witnesses and documents.

Legislation to extend the commission’s deadline to July 26 is still awaiting Bush’s signature.

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