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Rice’s Comments to Face Scrutiny at Hearing

Times Staff Writer

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice goes before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks this morning to counter criticism by former White House official Richard Clarke that the Bush administration ignored the terrorist threat.

But Rice also could face a barrage of questions about her own statements and claims made during a flurry of media appearances in recent weeks as she has sought to defend the administration’s handling of the terrorist threat, commission officials said Wednesday.

The commission staff has been poring over Rice’s words, highlighting potential discrepancies between her account and the evidence collected so far as well as the testimony from other witnesses, officials said.

Members of the commission said Wednesday that they had thick files on Rice’s recent remarks, and that they expected her to face pointed questions on two areas in particular: her assertions that pre-Sept. 11 intelligence warnings were “all about attacks that might take place overseas,” and that the Bush administration was assembling military plans to confront Al Qaeda when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

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One commissioner said he expects new information to be presented today demonstrating that there had been warnings of possible attacks on U.S. soil. And Rice’s claim that the White House was preparing for possible military strikes is at odds with one of the commission’s preliminary findings that there was “no evidence of new work on military capabilities or plans” before Sept. 11.

Because of these and other possible gaps, some on the commission said Rice faces the delicate task of navigating a course that answers commissioners’ questions but does not undermine her numerous, recent public statements.

Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey, said the session with Rice is being treated as the completion of hearings the panel held two weeks ago with top officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“This is really a continuation of our last hearings,” Kean said. “This is the witness who should have followed Clarke.”

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At the time, the White House refused to allow Rice to testify publicly and under oath, citing concern about allowing a senior presidential advisor to testify before a congressionally created panel. Even so, Rice granted a number of media interviews and published remarks defending the administration from Clarke’s criticisms. Kean said the commission staff and members “have been going through those [interviews and statements] at great length in preparing themselves” for today’s testimony.

Rice is also said to have been preparing for her testimony by taking part in practice sessions with other White House officials. But the administration has sought to downplay suggestions that it is concerned about her performance, or that the outcome could affect President Bush’s bid for reelection.

Administration officials stressed Wednesday that Rice had not disrupted her schedule to prepare her testimony. They declined to say whether Bush, who is spending the week at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, would watch the hearing.

Rice has prepared a 20-minute opening statement, and there has been significant speculation on whether she would apologize the way Clarke did in his testimony for the government’s failure to prevent the attacks. White House officials suggested that she will express regret, but stop short of apologizing or accepting blame. “We mourn the loss of life that occurred on Sept. 11, as do all Americans, and I think it’s fair to say Dr. Rice will express that,” a senior administration official said.

Commissioners said their questions would center on how the Bush administration received and responded to warnings from Clinton White House officials regarding Al Qaeda. The fundamental questions are, “What policies were actually adopted and pursued by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and what did they actually do?” said commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington state.

But several commissioners said they believe Rice needs to reconcile some of her recent remarks with potentially contradictory evidence. A Democrat on the panel, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, suggested that new information could be presented at the hearing showing there were warnings of the possibility of domestic attacks.

“I think we will shed some new light on that,” Ben-Veniste said. That would be at odds with some of Rice’s recent statements.

In a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” Rice said, “The threat reporting was all about attacks that might take place abroad.” She went on to point to concern that there might be plots targeting the Persian Gulf, Israel or an economic summit in Genoa, Italy. She said that she urged federal agencies “to button down the country” in any case, but that “everything pointed to an attack abroad.”

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A U.S. intelligence official said that the “preponderance” of the intelligence reports focused on overseas threats, but that there were also warnings of the possibility of domestic attacks. In fact, the official said, the CIA focused on such threats in an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing for the president that “was done in part to address the question of ‘what about the United States.’ ” That Aug. 6 briefing has been the subject of scrutiny by the commission because it also mentioned the possibility that Al Qaeda might use aircraft as weapons.

That president’s daily briefing also noted that the FBI believed Al Qaeda already had cells inside the United States, said another member of the commission, Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. “It isn’t true to say all the threat reporting was overseas,” Kerrey said.

In his book, Clarke said that in January 2001, he briefed Rice and others, saying, “Al Qaeda is at war with us, it is a highly capable organization, probably with sleeper cells in the U.S., and it is clearly planning a major series of attacks against us.”

The commission will continue its schedule of hearings next week, when senior Justice Department officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations, including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, are expected to testify.

Members of the commission met Wednesday evening in Washington to discuss their questioning plans, and also for a briefing from staffers who have reviewed thousands of Clinton administration documents that the Bush White House had not turned over to the panel.

In a written statement released Wednesday, the commission said that 90% of the 10,800 documents were duplicative or irrelevant, but that staff had identified 12 that were important to the commission’s work and should have been turned over. The commission said that the White House has now provided those documents, and that it deemed the failure to do so earlier “inadvertent.”

The commission is charged with investigating government failures related to the Sept. 11 attacks, and is expected to issue its final report in late July.

Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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