GOP officials press Rice to testify on 9/11

White House is making `a political blunder,' panel member says

`We have nothing to hide'

Administration deserves failing grade on terror, says ex-adviser Clarke

March 29, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fellow Republicans increased pressure yesterday on national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly under oath before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, with one panel member saying the White House was making "a political blunder."

Rice, in a prime-time television interview, reiterated the White House argument that the president's top advisers should not be forced to testify in public.

"We have absolutely nothing to hide," she insisted. "I've already spent four hours with the commission. I'll spend many more hours with the commission."

The continued White House refusal to allow questioning of Rice under oath came despite new demands from the panel's chairman and another member, both Republicans, as well as from an influential former Pentagon adviser.

"We do feel unanimously as a commission that she should testify in public," Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former New Jersey governor, said on Fox News Sunday. "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."

Commission member John F. Lehman Jr., a former secretary of the Navy, said the White House stance 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," Lehman told ABC's This Week. "There are no smoking guns. That's what makes this so absurd. It's a political blunder of the first order."

The issue of how to inform the public about the Bush administration's decisions in the months before Sept. 11 dominated television news shows yesterday as the former White House counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, leveled new criticism at the president and Rice.

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, Clarke said the Bush administration deserved "a failing grade" before Sept. 11. "They never got around to doing anything," he said.

Clarke, responding to accusations that his most recent statements conflict with earlier closed-door congressional testimony that cast the administration in a more favorable light, called for all his testimony to be declassified -- along with his memos and e-mail, and memos by Rice.

Rice, appearing later on the CBS news program 60 Minutes, insisted that President Bush and his top aides had done all they could to prevent the attacks.

"I would like very much to know what more could have been done," she said.

Rice, who has spent four hours with the commission in private, told CBS that the White House stance is necessary to protect the sanctity of the policy advice that presidents receive from top advisers. Although other White House officials have testified, she said, none has done so on matters of policy.

"I think she would be wise to testify," said Richard Perle, a former Pentagon adviser who remains an influential conservative and White House ally. "I think she would acquit herself well. She has nothing to conceal, nothing to hide."

Yesterday, Rice avoided the kinds of personal attacks on Clarke that have been made by Vice President Dick Cheney and several other Republican officials during the past week. In an interview with Time magazine, Cheney said of Clarke: "He's taken advantage of the circumstances this week to promote himself and his book.

"I don't know the guy that well," Cheney said. "I have had some dealings with him over the years, but judging based on what I've seen, I don't hold him in high regard."

In separate interviews, Rice and Clarke contradicted each other on key points that get to the core of whether the Bush administration was urgently pursuing terrorism in its early months.

Rice said the reason it took 7 1/2 months for the White House to complete its strategy against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network was that "there was a lot of work to do to come up with a plan." This included enlisting support from Pakistan and developing military plans.

Clarke said the final plan, approved by Bush's top advisers a week before Sept. 11, was "basically the same" as one he submitted to Rice that January.

"Let's declassify that memo I sent on Jan. 25, and let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later on Sept. 4, and let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't," Clarke said on Meet the Press.

Rice said she and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. initiated actions to guard against terrorism inside the United States during the summer of 2001, when U.S. intelligence picked up a "spike" of terror threats.

Clarke said the initiative came from him. "I told her I was going to do it. And I had already been doing it two weeks before, because on June 21, I believe it was, [CIA Director] George Tenet called me and said, `I don't think we're getting the message through.'"

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