White House relents, allows Rice to testify

President directs adviser to give public testimony before 9/11 commission

`Circumstances are unique'

Bush, Cheney to meet together with full panel

March 31, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Yielding to bipartisan pressure, President Bush reversed himself yesterday and agreed to allow his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to be questioned in public and under oath by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

In addition, the White House agreed to let all 10 members of the bipartisan commission question Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in private, though not under oath. Previously, the White House had insisted that only the chairman and vice chairman participate. The commission, in return, agreed to meet with Bush and Cheney at the same time.

No dates have been set for either the Rice testimony or the panel's meeting with Bush and Cheney, although the Associated Press reported that Rice was likely to appear toward the end of next week.

The shift marked an unusual about-face by the White House, which had staked out its refusal to let Rice testify as an important matter of principle.

In this case, the principle was what the Bush administration maintained was its right to preserve the secrecy of policy deliberations between the president and his top White House advisers, free from congressional inquiries.

Bush, speaking at the White House, said he had agreed to allow Rice's public testimony because the events surrounding the terror attacks represented a unique situation.

He said he had obtained agreement from the commission and from congressional leaders that having Rice testify would not set a precedent requiring White House officials to testify before legislative bodies. By statute, the commission is part of the legislative branch, although it operates independently.

"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 told reporters.

Stating that more than 800 administration officials had already spoken to the panel, Bush said, "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."

The reversal followed a week of what even Republicans said was a politically damaging controversy that gave critics ammunition to argue that the White House had something to hide.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the furor over Rice's testimony had come to overshadow the commission's investigation itself.

`More focus on process'

"We have to keep in mind that in recent days and weeks there has tended to be more focus on the process, rather than the substance," McClellan said.

McClellan said Bush decided over the weekend that Rice should testify publicly, provided certain conditions were met. As late as Sunday afternoon, White House spokesmen were insisting the president's position had not changed.

In a CBS interview broadcast Sunday night but taped late that morning, Rice gave no hint of a compromise, saying she was upholding an important principle by meeting with the commission only in private.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans praised Bush's decision, with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine calling it "in the best interests of the nation." Democrats highlighted Bush's reversal, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts saying, "The White House bowed to the inevitable."

The compromise was worked out Monday night in conversations among White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and the panel's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, and vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton. It was approved by the full commission yesterday.

In return for getting Rice's public testimony, the commission agreed that she would appear at an open hearing only once and that it would not seek public testimony from any other White House official.

Other officials would continue to meet privately with the panel and supply needed documents, according to the agreement. Commission members said they expected to meet again privately with Rice, in addition to hearing her public testimony.

The meeting with Bush and Cheney and the hearing with Rice are likely to focus on what Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said yesterday will be one of the panel's principal findings: whether the Bush administration made terrorism an "urgent priority."

At a news conference yesterday, Hamilton said the panel wants to learn about "the flow of information with regard to terrorism" that went to Bush and to his predecessor, Bill Clinton, "so that we get a sense or a feel of how the presidents assessed the information coming to them."

Like Bush and Cheney, Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, are to testify privately and not under oath, but they will do so separately. No date has been announced.

`Clear up discrepancies'

Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said the commissioners want to hear from Rice about the "kind of threats and dangers that were apparent to her before 9/11," how policy developed in the early months of the Bush administration and the White House response to the terror attacks.

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