Rice to testify publicly April 11 before 9/11 commission

Powell says Bush officials `did as much as we could'

April 02, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - National security adviser Condoleezza Rice will testify under oath April 8 before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

The exchange, expected to last 2 1/2 hours, will give Rice an opportunity to defend the administration against allegations by a former top Bush adviser that the White House ignored the growing threat of terrorism before the 2001 strikes.

Under pressure, the White House decided Tuesday to allow the public testimony, after resisting for weeks on the grounds of concerns about the separation of powers. Rice was interviewed by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States for four hours in private and not under oath.

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke set off a storm last month when he appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes to discuss his new book, Against All Enemies, which alleges that the Bush administration was not focused on terrorism before the attacks.

Three days after the interview, Clarke testified under oath that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network was not an urgent issue for the Bush administration before Sept. 11, 2001. The White House has denied the allegation.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, during a visit to Berlin, told a German television station yesterday that the Bush administration "did as much as we could, knowing what we knew about the situation," according to Reuters.

"We raised our threat levels. We warned our embassies. We warned our people around the world. We made sure our military was safe and were not exposed. ... We did everything we could to protect ourselves," Powell said.

Also yesterday, a Democratic senator called for the White House to release the full text of a speech Rice was planning to give on Sept. 11, 2001.

Excerpts of the speech, which appeared in The Washington Post, suggest that the Bush administration's top domestic security focus at the time was missile defense, not terrorism.

In a letter to the White House, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Rice's speech indicates "that at the very least there was a disconnect between the public security message and the policy prescriptions top White House officials were pushing and the private warnings federal agencies were issuing about imminent threats. ... More ominously, it may demonstrate that top White House officials did not take the warnings they received seriously enough."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan played down the significance of Rice's speech, which was supposed to be delivered at the School of Advanced International Studies at the John Hopkins University on the evening of Sept. 11.

"You're talking about one speech," he said. "On Sept. 11 I might remind you that the president was scheduled to give a speech on education. That doesn't take away from the fact that we were acting to confront the threat of terrorism, which we took very seriously."

According to the Post article, Rice's speech was designed to promote missile defense as a cornerstone of a new national security strategy and did not mention al-Qaida, bin Laden or Islamic extremist groups.

Schumer said Rice's speech is disturbing because the Bush administration has said that there was a significant terrorist "threat spike" in intelligence reports in the summer of 2001.

Schumer said that in the months preceding the Sept. 11 attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration issued at least five information circulars warning of potential strikes and that on at least two occasions, the FBI warned local law enforcement about similar threats.

In another development, a group of New York House members sent a letter to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales asking whether Republican members of the commission were coached by him before Clarke's testimony. The letter was prompted by news reports that Gonzales called two commission members who later grilled Clarke at the hearing.

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