For Bush, Rice's testimony could be key to re-election

Commission likely to ask about intelligence, Iraq

April 08, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Whenever President Bush has asked Condoleezza Rice to speak for him on sensitive foreign policy matters, she has come through, defending his ideas and record with savvy and precision, never losing her cool. Today, Bush dispatches his national security adviser on perhaps her most delicate mission yet.

Rice will travel to Capitol Hill and testify under oath for the better part of a morning on live television before a commission examining what the government knew before the Sept. 11 attacks, how the Bush administration responded to warnings of terrorist action and whether officials might have done more to prevent the tragedy.

Beyond those queries, Rice is likely to face some tough questions about Iraq and whether the president and his team were preoccupied with Saddam Hussein at times when they might have dedicated more resources to battling Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Whenever a top White House official appears before a congressional panel, under the penalty of perjury, the stakes are high. Now, however, is an especially pivotal hour for the Bush presidency.

Bush is seeking re-election by portraying himself as an able war leader who has worked to make the country safer from terrorist threats. Rice will be trying to preserve Bush's credibility on the very issue he is employing to attract voters.

"She is a super-articulate person," Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University presidential historian, said of Rice. "But if this does turn out to be a one-term presidency, and people ask why, this could be the moment, the event, where people look back and say that is when it started to go downhill. That is when the bottom dropped out."

Violence in Iraq - a place Bush has deemed the central front in the campaign to defeat terrorism - has appeared to spiral out of control in recent days. An increasing number of Americans have begun to doubt the president's handling of the war on terror, complicating his re-election bid.

The allegation that Bush and his team were obsessed with Iraq before Sept. 11 at the expense of paying adequate attention to al-Qaida was made by Bush's former counterterrorism aide, Richard A. Clarke, who testified before the commission two weeks ago.

Clarke also said that the White House did not heed urgent warnings about an impending attack and did not implement a plan to target al-Qaida that he developed before the Sept. 11 attack.

The charges were disputed by the White House, which launched an effort to discredit Clarke.

Commission members have said they want to press Rice on what she and her staff were told by outgoing President Bill Clinton's team about al-Qaida's methods and plans. They also want to know what the intelligence was showing in the summer of 2001 and what actions Bush took to try to prevent an attack on the home front.

The members also have said they want Rice to explain the discrepancies between Clarke's testimony and previous testimony by White House officials, including Rice, who has testified for four hours in private session.

One commission member, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, said in an interview with CBS that he disagreed with Clarke's contention that Iraq was a distraction from the war on terrorism, but felt the issue was worth asking Rice about. "Let's argue that," he said. "Let's analyze whether or not that's the case."

The commission has released a preliminary report that said the administration missed significant clues that, if properly evaluated, might have prevented the attacks.

The commission is expected to meet with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who plan to provide private testimony together. Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, also are to testify behind closed doors, but not together.

For weeks, the commission urged the White House to allow Rice to testify in public. Under bipartisan pressure, the president relented last week after receiving assurances that his prerogative to refuse to allow his closest advisers to testify publicly was protected for the future.

"She was right at the nexus 24 hours a day," commission member John F. Lehman, a Republican and former Navy secretary, said this week. "She was the conduit to the president and the coordinator of national security policy. ... She really has the view that we need to establish the facts."

Rice is expected to offer a 20-minute opening statement before taking questions for about two hours. She is likely to get the kinds of questions she has dealt with in recent news interviews. In those instances, she has responded nimbly, painting a portrait of Bush and his advisers as deeply worried about terrorist threats before Sept. 11, and determined to confront al-Qaida more forcefully than Clinton did, yet lacking specific intelligence warning of an attack. What's more, she is expected to stress today that the White House was in a pre-Sept. 11 mindset that did not contemplate such a large-scale, devastating attack from a shadowy terrorist group.

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