9/11 commission workers tracking inconsistencies

Staff is ordered to seek discrepancies between Rice, Clarke statements

April 01, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The staff of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is conducting a detailed review of all discrepancies found in public and private statements by Condoleezza Rice and Richard A. Clarke in drawing up questions for Rice when she testifies before the panel, probably next week, commission officials said yesterday.

Commission members said that both the panel's leaders and the White House were trying to schedule sworn testimony by Rice, the president's national security adviser, for late next week.

The White House, they said, is hoping to limit any political damage to the president by having Rice testify quickly in the hope of ending the furor over the accusations made by Clarke, President Bush's former counterterrorism director.

Clarke said in testimony before the commission last week and in his new best-selling memoir that the Bush administration - and Rice, in particular - largely ignored al-Qaida threats before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Officials said the 10-member bipartisan commission wants Rice's testimony by the end of next week in order to move on to a new issue - law-enforcement failures before Sept. 11, 2001 - at separate hearings to begin April 13.

"We're working with the commission to move forward as quickly as possible," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said. `'I think most Americans view Dick Clarke and his contradictions as yesterday's news."

Bush announced Tuesday that he would allow Rice to testify at a public hearing, reversing himself after the White House had argued for weeks that testimony by such a senior presidential aide would erode the president's constitutional authority.

Commission members, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the panel's staff had been asked in the wake of Clarke's testimony last week to carefully review all testimony and other remarks that he and Rice have made since Sept. 11, to determine where they disagree.

The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, suggested yesterday that the questioning of Rice would center on the early months of the Bush administration, the period in which Clarke has insisted that the issue of terrorist threats was largely overlooked.

"I think the thing that Clarke emphasized the most is a lack of attention by the Bush administration to the problem of terrorism," Kean said on CNN.

As the White House and the commission sought to work out the logistics for Rice's testimony, Clarke received new support yesterday from the staff director of the bipartisan joint congressional inquiry that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks in 2002.

The former staff director, Eleanor J. Hill, a former federal prosecutor and congressional aide whose management of the investigation was widely praised by Democrats and Republicans alike, said the congressional investigation turned up evidence to support Clarke's contention that the Bush administration had paid too little attention to terror in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hill said that while she no longer had access to transcripts of the classified testimony given by Clarke to the joint investigation, she could not identify large contradictions between his testimony last week and his testimony two years ago.

"I didn't hear any major factual discrepancies," said Hill, adding that the central differences between Clarke's account and that of Rice "appeared to be an opinion issue, not so much a fact issue."

She cited passages in the joint investigation's final report that appear to back up Clarke's contentions, especially this finding:

"It appears that significant slippage in counterterrorism policy may have taken place in late 2000 and early 2001. At least part of that was due to the unresolved status of Clarke as national coordinator for counterterrorism and his uncertain mandate to coordinate Bush administration policy on terrorism and especially on [Osama] bin Laden."

That would seem to contradict Rice, who has insisted that the Bush administration considered terrorism a high priority throughout 2001 and that the White House had gone on "battle stations" to deal with dire warnings from intelligence agencies about an imminent, possibly catastrophic attack by al-Qaida.

Congressional Republican leaders asked last week that the Bush administration declassify Clarke's 2002 testimony, saying it would show glaring inconsistencies in his account of the Bush administration's performance on counterterrorism.

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