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Bush Gives In, Will Allow Rice to Testify in Public Before Panel

Times Staff Writers

Caving in to pressure from both parties, President Bush announced Tuesday that he would break precedent and allow his closest foreign policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, to testify in public and under oath about the administration’s actions before and after the 2001 terror attacks.

Bush also said he and Vice President Dick Cheney would meet together, in private, with the full 10-member Sept. 11 commission. Previously, Bush and Cheney had agreed to speak only with the commission’s chairman and vice chairman.

The two decisions were a significant reversal for the White House, which has spent 10 days on the defensive as the independent panel investigating the government’s response to terrorism has called the administration’s actions into question.

Bush’s change in policy apparently came in response to calls to do so from fellow Republicans, who feared that the controversy unleashed by the commission and its star witness, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, threatened to tarnish the president’s reputation as a wartime leader. That controversy has not abated despite fierce White House counterattacks in the media -- primarily from Rice, the national security advisor.

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“I’ve ordered this level of cooperation because I consider it necessary to gaining a complete picture of the months and years that preceded the murder of our fellow citizens” on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush told reporters. “Our nation must never forget the loss or the lessons of Sept. 11, and must not assume that the danger has passed.”

The White House move was not a complete capitulation to the commission’s demands. In return for agreeing to meet with all 10 panel members, Bush and Cheney will be questioned at the same time, reducing the possibility that the nation’s top two officials might give differing responses and potentially enabling them to confer before answering.

Moreover, the commission agreed to provide written assurances that no further summonses would be issued to White House staff and that Rice’s appearance would not set a precedent whereby future national security advisors or other presidential staff would be required to appear before similar panels.

“The leaders of Congress and the commission agree with me that the circumstances of this case are unique because the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were unique,” Bush said.

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At a hastily called news conference, the commission’s chairman and vice chairman praised the decision, saying it resolved the last significant impasse between the panel and the administration.

Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former New Jersey governor, said the panel was eager to schedule Rice’s appearance as soon as possible. He said the agreement came together late Monday after several days of intense talks, and that it reflected recognition by the White House of the stakes involved.

“I think that in the end, I suspect that the president and the White House understood that it was very important for the public, as well as for the commission’s work, that Dr. Rice be allowed to testify in public,” Kean said.

Until Tuesday, the White House had rejected the commission’s request for Rice’s testimony, claiming executive privilege -- the legal doctrine that holds that while public officials such as the secretary of State must respond to a congressional summons, the president’s private advisors do not. The concept ensures that the president receives unfettered advice without fear of public scrutiny.

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Because the Sept. 11 commission was created by Congress, the administration regarded its request for testimony as equivalent to one from Congress itself.

Rice is the closest and most senior advisor to Bush to agree to testify before the commission in public. As national security advisor, she sees virtually all of the most sensitive intelligence presented to the president and is involved in every major foreign policy decision.

“To set straight, to correct the record, is really in my mind what Condoleezza Rice at this point will be able to contribute,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Rice is at the center of an increasingly intense debate over how seriously the Bush administration took the terrorist threat during its first eight months in office.

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Clarke, the top counterterrorism advisor in the Bush and Clinton administrations, testified under oath before the commission last week that the Bush White House did not treat terrorism with urgency, and that the issue was overshadowed by the administration’s focus on Iraq and other matters.

Clarke, who served in senior positions in every administration since Ronald Reagan’s, also has been sharply critical of Rice, who was his boss and his conduit to the president.

Rice has been the administration’s point person in fending off this fresh attack on its counterterrorism efforts. Last week, while Cabinet officials past and present were testifying before the panel on Capitol Hill, she was summoning reporters to her White House office to rebut Clarke’s criticisms.

She and other White House officials sought to undermine Clarke’s credibility by suggesting that he had changed his positions since leaving the White House last year.

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But Clarke’s allegations have, for the most part, withstood the White House counterattack. Some think his comments represent the most credible frontal attack yet on an administration that is running for reelection largely on its counterterrorism record.

Commissioners now say that an evaluation of the Bush record will be a central component of their final report, which is scheduled to be completed July 26 -- the day the Democratic convention opens in Boston.

At the news conference, Lee Hamilton, the commission’s vice chairman and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said Clarke’s charge that the administration had ignored the Al Qaeda threat “very much is in the mandate of the commission and will be one of our principal findings.”

He and Kean said they saw numerous contradictions between Rice and Clarke in their descriptions of the administration’s outlook and efforts leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Both commissioners said they thought it essential to question Rice under oath to help resolve the disparity. Rice did meet privately with the commission for four hours in February, but she was not sworn in -- and because the session was not recorded, there was no transcript.

Rice’s numerous media interviews since Clarke’s allegations first became public more than a week ago failed to quash the controversy, in part because of the impression that by speaking to reporters but not the commissioners, she -- or the administration -- was trying to avoid scrutiny.

“The misimpression we wanted to correct was that we weren’t fully cooperating, when we were,” said one White House official.

“I think that they made a good judgment call,” said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. “The White House is doing what it should properly do, which is prove that it has nothing to hide.”

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Kean listed several issues on which the commission wanted to question Rice.

“We want to hear from Dr. Rice about the development of policy in the first eight months of the Bush administration to the kind of threats and dangers that were apparent to her before 9/11,” he said.

“We want to talk about the day of and the immediate response of the White House. We want to understand what substantive differences there are, perhaps, in testimony between Dr. Rice and other witnesses. We want to understand the nature of the decision-making at the highest levels of government, and how that war on terrorism ... is being managed today.”

In a sign of how much attention the White House has paid to every detail of its negotiations with the commission, the administration insisted that the panel employ just “one staff note-taker” for the session with Bush and Cheney. The session is not to be recorded or transcribed.

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The commission is also scheduled to interview former President Bill Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore. Neither will be sworn in, and their testimony also will be in closed session. They are to meet with the panel separately.

The bipartisan commission of five Democrats and five Republicans was established by Congress in late 2002 to produce a comprehensive report on government failures leading up to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The panel, composed largely of former government officials, has already interviewed hundreds of witnesses and reviewed tens of thousands of documents.

Resolution of the impasse over Rice’s testimony is the latest instance in which the White House has dug in its heels over an aspect of the Sept. 11 inquiry, only to be forced to acquiesce under pressure. The administration initially resisted the creation of the commission, and has been criticized by the panel on several occasions for being slow to grant access to witnesses and documents.

Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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