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Rice steadfast in refusal to publicly testify

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice listens to President Bush during a press briefing at the White House last Tuesday.Charles Dharapak / AP file
/ Source: staff and news service reports

As White House allies and Republicans investigating the Sept. 11 attacks pressed to hear open testimony from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- with one member of the 9/11 panel calling her refusal a “political blunder of the first order” -- Rice took to the prime-time airwaves Sunday night, renewing her claim of executive privilege.

“Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify,” Rice told Ed Bradley of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “I would really like to do that. But there is an important principle involved here: It is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.”

Intimidation denied
Rice disputed a claim from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke that President Bush attempted to intimidate Clarke into finding a connection between the attacks and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

"I have never seen the president say anything to people in an intimidating way," she said. "The president doesn't talk to his staff in an intimidating way to get them to produce evidence that is false."

Rice also took issue with claims that terrorism was not a priority for the administration -- claims made by Clarke, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. "I don't know what a sense of urgency would have caused us to do differently," Rice said.

Rice noted that before Sept. 11, "terrorist attacks were getting bolder, they were getting more imaginative, they were getting more daring. We were not aggressively going after them." 

The policies of the current Bush administration were different, she suggested. "What they've been surprised by is that this time, there has been an all-out launching of war on them," Rice said. "... They are going to be defeated."

A 'safer' world
"The war on terrorism is a broad war, not a narrow war," Rice told Bradley. "Iraq is a big reason, or was, for the instability in the region, for threats against the United States. Saddam Hussein's regime was very dangerous."

With Saddam out of power, Rice said, "the world is a lot safer and the war on terrorism is well served."

When Bradley asked if she or the president were prepared to offer an apology to the families of victims of Sept. 11 -- like the dramatic mea culpa offered by Clarke last week in his testimony before the commission -- she demurred.

"The families have heard from this president -- and from me personally, in some cases -- how deeply sorry everyone is for the loss they endured," she said. "But the best thing we can do for the future of this country is to focus on those who did this to us."

Answering an insider
The Bradley interview was the latest in which the embattled Rice was compelled to respond to fresh criticism on how the Bush administration has handled the threat of terrorism against the United States.

Sharpening his criticism on Sunday, Clarke said President Clinton was more aggressive than Bush in trying to confront al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden’s organization.

“He did something, and President Bush did nothing prior to September 11,” Clarke told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Clarke said a sweeping declassification of documents would prove that the Bush administration neglected the threat of terrorism in the nine months leading up to the attacks.

Asked about Clarke’s request for the declassification, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “My bias will be to provide this information in an unclassified manner not only to the commission, but to the American people."

Powell also rejected Clarke’s charge that the incoming Bush administration devoted little attention to terrorism.

“This wasn’t a lack of interest, certainly on my part, and I think all of my colleagues in the administration,” Powell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Seeking clarification
Members of the Sept. 11 commissioner made clear they will not relent in their pursuit of public testimony from Rice, but said they were not inclined to subpoena her.

The White House has declined to let her appear at the commission’s televised hearings, citing the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

“Condi Rice would be a superb witness. She is anxious to testify. The president would dearly love to have her testify,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters. “But the lawyers have concluded that to do so would alter the balance if we got into the practice of doing that.”

The administration has requested a second private session with Rice to clear up “a number of mischaracterizations” of her statements and positions about the attacks. She was interviewed by the panel behind closed doors on Feb. 7.

Rice was “very, very forthcoming in her first meeting with us,” said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican named by Bush to lead the commission.

“But we do feel unanimously as a commission that she should testify in public. We feel it’s important to get her case out there. We recognize there are arguments having to do with separation of powers. We think in a tragedy of this magnitude that those kind of legal arguments are probably overridden,” Kean told “Fox News Sunday.”

Commissioner John Lehman, another Republican, said Rice “has nothing to hide, and yet this is creating the impression for honest Americans all over the country and people all over the world that the White House has something to hide, that Condi Rice has something to hide.”

“And if they do, we sure haven’t found it. There are no smoking guns. That’s what makes this so absurd. It’s a political blunder of the first order,” Lehman told ABC’s “This Week.”

A White House ally, Richard Perle, said, “I think she would be wise to testify.”

Perle, who resigned last month as an adviser to the Pentagon, said he recognized the constitutional concerns at issue. “Sometimes you have to set those aside because the circumstances require it,” he told CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Rep. Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said, “It’s been one of the stupidest things this White House has done. ... She has to testify.”

Subpoena unlikely
Kean said it was unlikely he would issue a subpoena to force her appearance.

“We’ve only got a certain life on this commission, and to get into a court battle over a subpoena we don’t think is really appropriate right now, or will it help us leading to our conclusion, so we can issue a report in July, which is now our mandate,” Kean said. “We are still going to press and still believe unanimously as a commission that we should hear from her in public.”

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has challenged Rice to appear publicly, accusing the White House of stonewalling the commission and of attempting “character assassination” against Clarke, who has served four U.S. presidents.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld, asked if Bush should apologize to the American people, said: “I think the president has recognized the failure that existed and the concern he has for those people and the fact that the government, our government, was there and that attack took place. I don’t know quite what else one would do.”'s Michael E. Ross contributed to this report.