Bush to answer more 9/11 inquiries

Spokesman says president won't enforce 1-hour limit, denies bending to criticism

March 10, 2004|By Ken Fireman | Ken Fireman,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - President Bush, under fire from his Democratic opponent over the conditions of his testimony to the Sept. 11 commission, will not rigorously enforce a one-hour time limit when he meets with the panel, the White House indicated yesterday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan signaled that Bush was prepared to show flexibility on the time limit to accommodate the panel, which is investigating the circumstances of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"Many of their questions have already been asked and answered," McClellan said. "We believe that obviously you have to set parameters when you're talking about the president of the United States, and we believe we set aside a reasonable period of time."

But, he added, "The president's going to answer all of the questions they want to raise. Nobody's watching the clock."

A date for Bush's testimony has yet to be set.

On another contentious issue, McClellan said that Bush would not reconsider his decision to limit the interview to the panel's chairman and vice chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, and former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat.

The comments followed days of increasingly caustic criticism from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. On Sunday, Kerry accused Bush of "stonewalling" the investigation; on Monday, when Bush visited a Houston livestock and rodeo show, Kerry said that if Bush "can find time to go to a rodeo, he can spend more than one hour before the commission."

McClellan denied that Bush was bending in response to the criticism, saying of Kerry: "I don't think he's someone who lets the facts get in the way of his campaign."

Kerry retorted: "It's good to see that the president has finally found time in his schedule to spend more than an hour with the 9/11 commission to investigate the greatest intelligence failure in our nation's history. I think all Americans hope that his cooperation with the commission will lead to real answers instead of more stonewalling."

One Democrat on the commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, said it was "obvious to all concerned" that one hour was insufficient. "This is not a game of `Beat the Clock,'" he said.

Ben-Veniste continued to express concern over Bush's refusal to meet with the full panel, saying he was the only witness to set such limits.

Another Democratic member, Tim Roemer, called McClellan's statements "a positive development" but said he hoped Bush would "continue to evolve" toward an agreement to meet with all 10 commission members.

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 testified in private before the commission, and, McClellan said, "Only five members showed up."

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

McClellan said the White House has given the commission "unprecedented" cooperation. He said it had turned over a huge amount of evidence, including 2 million pages of documents, 60 compact discs of radar and flight information, and 800 audio cassettes of interviews.

Bush initially opposed the commission's creation and a request for a two-month extension to complete its report, later agreeing to both. He also resisted demands to produce some material, especially a 2001 intelligence report that raised the possibility of al-Qaida hijacking passenger airliners, later agreeing to limited access under threat of subpoena.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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