Following President Bush’s reversal, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks scheduled 2½ hours of testimony next Thursday, in public and under oath, by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the commission and the White House said Thursday.
Rice had said repeatedly that she wanted to testify, but only in private and not under oath, to rebut claims made before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States last week by Bush’s former counterterrorism director, Richard Clarke. He accused Bush of being obsessed with ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at the expense of fully focusing on the war against terrorism.
The White House and Rice at first maintained that requiring a national security adviser to testify under oath would compromise “executive privilege,” which allows a president to exchange ideas freely with an adviser without fearing that they would be made public.
Bush said this week that he changed his mind about allowing Rice to testify in public and under oath because he wanted the nation to have “a complete picture” of events leading up to the attacks.
Much riding on Rice
At the White House, which was battered by criticism for the refusal to let Rice testify, there was hope that her appearance would allow the administration to get the last word on Clarke and turn the page on the bad news of the past week.
Bush’s re-election strategy rests a great deal on his performance in the war on terrorism, and the White House is sensitive to any suggestion that he was not doing enough to try to prevent the attacks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a visit to Berlin, said on ZDF German television that the administration "did as much as we could, knowing what we knew about the situation."
"We raised our threat levels. We warned our embassies. We warned our people around the world. We made sure our military was safe and were not exposed. ... We did everything we could to protect ourselves," Powell said.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have also agreed to meet together with the full panel in private, abandoning their earlier insistence that they would meet only with the commission’s chairman and vice chairman. No date has been set for their appearance, and while notes will be taken during their appearance, there are no plans for them to be released to the public.
The White House was fighting against an impression left in an article by The Washington Post that Bush, Rice and others in the top echelon of power were more concerned about missile defense than terrorism in the months before Sept. 11.
The Post published excerpts Thursday of a on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, that the newspaper said was designed to promote missile defense as the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s national security.
“You’re talking about one speech,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “I think you need to look at the actions and concrete steps that we were taking to confront the threat of terrorism.”
The White House would not release the entire text of the speech, prompting a request from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that it be released.
Ivo Daalder, a member of President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, said the Bush administration would be hard-pressed to find any reference to Osama bin Laden or his al-Qaida terror network by any top officials in the months before Sept. 11.
Rice’s speech, said Daalder, now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, “is just the final cherry on the pudding proving that what these people were concerned about was not al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden but madmen with missiles.”
Questions also arose in Washington about contacts between the Bush administration and Republican commissioners as they prepared to grill Clarke about his charges last week.
People close to the commission said White House counsel Alberto Gonzales called Republican commissioners Fred Fielding and James Thompson. The two commissioners went on to sharply criticize Clarke.
McClellan would not confirm the calls. He accused Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, of trying to “politicize” the commission’s deliberations by asking the White House to detail Gonzales’ conversations with the commissioners.
Rice vs. Clarke
Rice and the White House have strongly disputed Clarke’s claims that the Bush administration ignored the threat of al-Qaida before Sept. 11, 2001.
on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that he believed he and his team might have been able to make a difference in stopping the attacks had they had access to all of the intelligence available to the CIA and the FBI.
Rice has also disputed Clarke’s claim that Bush tried to intimidate him on Sept. 12, 2001, into finding a connection between Saddam and the Sept. 11 attacks.
Commission staff members were already highlighting differences between Rice and Clarke so commissioners could prepare questions, said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the panel’s Democratic vice chairman.
“We've got to clear up those discrepancies as best we can,” said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the commission’s Republican chairman.
July 26 deadline
The commission, which is also reviewing Clinton administration material, recently contacted Clinton’s presidential library, where federal archivists spent three months gathering 6,000 documents which they turned over to the investigation. Presidential records ordinarily are sealed for five years.
Kean and Hamilton acknowledged that the panel’s final report may not be released by the July 26 deadline, depending on how fast the White House declassifies its contents.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card is setting up a process to expedite declassification, and the commission may submit parts of the report early to administration officials to ensure a punctual release.
The commission plans to hold new public hearings April 13-14 on failures in intelligence and law enforcement, with witnesses to include Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Attorney General Janet Reno, CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.