In reversal, Bush aide to testify publiclyWASHINGTON - Under mounting bipartisan pressure, the White House gave in Tuesday to demands from the independent commission studying the Sept. 11 terror attacks, saying that Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, would be allowed to testify publicly under oath. The president and vice president also will answer questions in a private session before the full panel.
In a letter to the chairman and vice chairman of the panel, the president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, described the concession on Rice as an "extraordinary accommodation" made only because of the "extraordinary and unique circumstances" surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, and the great public interest in understanding the disastrous attacks of that day.
The letter represented a sharp reversal from the administration's insistence, repeated as recently as Monday, that the principles of executive privilege and separation of powers prevented Rice from testifying publicly on such a matter.
The bipartisan panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, welcomed the decision and said it would "work with the White House to schedule both sessions promptly." A Republican panel member, Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, said no time limit would be set on the session with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
The panel chairman, Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, said Monday that they wanted Rice to testify publicly under oath to resolve differences between her statements and the sworn testimony of Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser who has sharply criticized the administration's approach to fighting terrorism.
Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, had said: "I would like to have her testimony under the penalty of perjury," to put her on equal legal footing with Clarke.
Members of both parties supported this call, including several Republicans who feared the White House was suffering politically from the appearance of possibly obstructing an important national inquiry.
Gonzales did set two conditions for Rice's appearance. The first was that the commission agree in writing that the session, at a date yet to be fixed, would set no precedent for future requests for the testimony of any White House official. The White House has already secured assurances from the House and Senate leaders that Rice's public testimony will not be cited as precedent in any future requests for testimony.
The second condition was that the commission agree in writing not to request additional public testimony from any White House official. Gorton, the commission member, said the panel on Tuesday accepted the proposal, including the stipulation that it not call other White House officials, because "we hadn't planned to." The Gonzales letter sought to underscore White House cooperation to date. It noted that 20 executive branch officials had already met privately with the commission; this included Rice's four-hour session on Feb. 7.
All those appearing in public session have been required to take an oath, exposing them to possible perjury charges if they are found to have lied. Rice was not under oath in the February appearance, though she has said she felt both a moral and legal obligation to tell the truth. No transcript was made. But Kean and Hamilton said they were ready to declassify and release commissioners' notes of the meeting with Rice, and also transcripts of 15 hours of private testimony from Clarke before last week's public session.
White House spokesmen had said previously that Bush and Cheney would meet only with Kean and Hamilton, not all 10 members as agreed on Tuesday.
The White House's insistence that it was creating no precedent allowed it to edge back from the separation-of-powers principles it had repeatedly invoked in blocking Rice. Gonzales had written a week earlier that to ensure that any president "receive the best and most candid possible advice" from his White House advisers on national security issues, it was necessary that they "not be compelled to testify publicly before congressional bodies such as the commission." Previous administrations have insisted on the same principle.
Some Democrats wasted no time, however, in portraying the administration's shift on Tuesday as being political and not a point of principle.
"I suppose all of the protestation that this would violate separation of powers has gone by the wayside," said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York. "We all knew that was just a smokescreen."
The White House has been waging an all-out campaign to rebut Clarke's suggestions that it failed before the Sept. 11 attacks to give full attention to the fight on terror and that it quickly became preoccupied afterward by what Clarke said were exaggerated fears of Iraq. But the adamant refusal to let Rice give public testimony had created what members of both parties said was a damaging impression that the White House might be trying to hide something.
The tug-of-war has made Rice more prominent than ever; a picture on the cover of the current Time magazine shows a glaring Rice over the words "Feeling the Heat." John Lehman, a Republican member of the panel, said that based on Rice's private testimony and all he had seen, she had "nothing to hide." Her public testimony will, nonetheless, give the nation an opportunity to view the questioning of the White House figure considered closest to Bush's ear on security matters.
Since the release last week of Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," in which he questions the Bush administration's commitment to the terrorism fight, Rice has spent hours asserting in television interviews that Bush and his advisers could not have done much more.
"I don't know what a sense of urgency - any greater than the one that we had - would have caused us to do differently," she said on Sunday on the CBS program "60 Minutes."
Schumer said Clarke had stuck by his story in the face of "considerable criticism and vituperation from the White House." Now, he said, "we wait with bated breath to hear what Condoleezza Rice will testify."