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Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly

Published: 11:53AM Wednesday March 31, 2004 Source: Reuters

US President George Bush reversed course under pressure and agreed to let his national security adviser give sworn public testimony before the September 11 commission, while he and Vice President Dick Cheney will meet privately with the full panel.

The dramatic about-face on the two questions came in a letter to the bipartisan panel that said Condoleezza Rice would appear in public if it was agreed it would not set a precedent under the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers.

The 10-member commission insisted on public testimony from Rice after former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke's bombshell allegations last week that the Bush White House ignored an urgent al Qaeda threat before the September 11, 2001, attacks and focused on Iraq as a likely culprit afterward.

Until the announcement, administration officials were talking about a possible compromise in which the White House would have Rice meet privately with the panel and then release her unsworn remarks.

"The president recognises the truly unique and extraordinary circumstances underlying the commission's responsibility to prepare a detailed report on the facts and circumstances of the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001," the president's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, wrote to the commission chairman, Republican Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton.

The commission quickly agreed to the White House demands, including that it not seek additional public testimony from any White House official. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, US House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, gave similar assurances.

"These decisions represent a significant contribution by the president to the work of the commission, consistent with our mandate," the panel said in a statement.

Both the commission and the White House promised the sessions would be scheduled promptly.

The move was a stunning reversal for the White House, which after initially resisting creation of the commission, had adamantly refused to allow Rice to testify in public and said Bush would speak only to Kean and Hamilton instead of all 10 members - five Republicans and five Democrats.

Bush came under increasing pressure after Clarke told the commission last week, under oath, that the Bush administration was slow to respond to the threat from al Qaeda, which is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The allegations from Clarke, who served four US presidents, challenged Bush's image as a strong leader on homeland security and the US war on terrorism, which the president has been showcasing in his re-election campaign.

The latest USAToday/CNN/Gallup Poll showed that most Americans - 58% - still approve of Bush's handling of the terrorism threat. His overall job approval rating advanced to 53%, up 4% age points since early March.

Rice, who was at the forefront of a furious public White House counterattack against Clarke last week, met privately for four hours in February with the panel, but was not under oath.

Though she asked to return before the commission to refute Clarke's allegations, the White House refused to let her testify publicly citing a long-standing position that presidential advisers who have not been confirmed by the US Senate cannot give public testimony.

Frist, who has charged that Clarke's commission testimony conflicted with remarks he made to a congressional panel in 2002, predicted Rice would provide "very powerful testimony ... that will set the record straight."

The top Senate Democrat, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, said, "I don't think, in this case, they had any choice but to do what the American people are clamouring for."

Rice had also faced the demand for public testimony from Democrats, who suggested the White House refusal meant the administration had something to hide.

"Condi looks forward to answering all their questions," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Democrats decried the furious assault on Clarke's credibility that sought to cast the longtime staff member as a disgruntled employee seeking to undermine Bush with politically motivated accusations.

"We now all wait with baited breath to hear what Condoleezza Rice will testify to under oath," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.