- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2004

President Bush yesterday succumbed to political pressure and agreed to have National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify publicly in front of the September 11 commission.

Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also agreed to answer questions from the full commission, but not under oath, after previously indicating that they would meet for just an hour and only with the panel’s chairmen.

“This commission has been charged with a crucial task,” Mr. Bush said yesterday evening in a hastily called press conference. “To prevent further attacks, we must understand the methods of our enemies.

“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 September 11, 2001,” he said.

Mr. Bush did not take questions after he read his statement from the lectern in the White House press-briefing room.

The agreement, which was negotiated in the past several days by White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, includes a provision that after Miss Rice testifies, which could come as early as next week, no other Bush administration official will give public testimony.

The president, who has made his performance in the war on terror a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, has come under heavy political fire for using his executive privilege to keep Miss Rice from testifying publicly and under oath to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Mr. Bush insisted that his refusal of Miss Rice’s public testimony was a defense of the “principle of the separation of powers” that is “protected by the Constitution, recognized by the courts, and has been defended by presidents of both political parties.”

But he waived that privilege yesterday morning after being assured by the chairmen of the commission and congressional leaders that Miss Rice’s public testimony would not set a legal precedent.

“The leaders of Congress and the commission agree with me that the circumstances of this case are unique because the events of September the 11th, 2001, were unique,” Mr. Bush said. “At my direction, … Dr. Rice will participate in an open, public hearing.”

Miss Rice already has spent four hours providing testimony to the commission, but that was behind closed doors and the White House has refused to release transcripts of the session.

Mr. Bush said he has directed his staff to cooperate fully with the commission and pointed out that more than 800 members of the administration have been interviewed and 20 high-level White House staffers also have either testified or will do so soon.

Democrats were pleased with the president’s decision, but complained that it was too long in coming.

“We welcome the decision by the president of the United States,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “The White House bowed to the inevitable. With the September 11th commission unanimously calling for Dr. Rice’s testimony in public, under oath, the administration had no choice — especially after Dr. Rice’s frequent television appearances on the issue in recent days.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, accused the White House of “16 months of foot-dragging and an unwillingness to cooperate that we have now seen come to an end.”

“I don’t think that in this case they had any choice but to do what the American people are clamoring for,” Mr. Daschle said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied that the president’s decision had anything to do with the growing political pressure — from both Democrats and Republicans — to have Miss Rice testify in public.

“Over the course of recent days and recent weeks, there has been more focus on the process [of the commission] rather than the substance,” Mr. McClellan said. “The president believes the focus ought to be on the substance, because the work of the 9/11 commission has an important role to play in helping us move forward in the war on terrorism.”

For weeks, Democrats have insinuated that the administration had something to hide by withholding Miss Rice’s public testimony, with Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry accusing the White House of “stonewalling” the commission.

“The question is why this White House only does the right thing under political pressure,” said Kerry spokesman David Wade. “Their first instinct should be to answer questions about our security, rather than launch a public-relations offensive and, when that fails, do what they should’ve done from Day One.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to see Miss Rice take advantage of this high-profile forum to rebut former counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke’s criticisms last week of Mr. Bush and of her personally.

“Condi knocks it out of the park,” said a Bush-Cheney campaign official who requested anonymity. “This person is knowledgeable and credible and has been on top of the global war on terror from the beginning. She is one of the administration’s best assets.”

Thomas H. Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and chairman of the commission, said the “no more public testimony” condition was not really a concession to White House demands.

“We had no plans in public hearing to invite any member of the White House staff, so this was not a condition we had any problem with,” Mr. Kean said, noting that the commission still can meet with White House staffers in private session.

The commission is expected to release a report in July on the failures of U.S. intelligence-gathering and terrorism policies before the September 11 attacks.

Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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