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Panel Presses Rice to Testify

One Republican on the 9/11 commission calls her refusal a 'political blunder.' The White House stands by executive privilege.

March 29, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Top Republicans on the Sept. 11 commission joined Democrats on Sunday in calling for national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly about a former subordinate's claims that the White House did not take seriously Al Qaeda's threat to the United States.

One commissioner called her failure to appear in an open session "a political blunder of the first order."

But Rice again refused to do so, saying such an appearance would violate the "long-standing principle" of executive privilege.

Thomas H. Kean, the Republican chairman of the 10-member bipartisan panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, said the commission had decided unanimously that Rice should offer public testimony in response to the allegations aired last week by Richard Clarke, who headed the National Security Council's counterterrorism efforts in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. But Kean said the commission would not subpoena her.

White House lawyers have agreed only to allow Rice to meet with the commission in private and not under oath, arguing that to do otherwise would violate the executive privilege that allows presidents to avoid congressional questioning of their advisors.

"We feel it's important to get her case out there," Kean, a former New Jersey governor, said on "Fox News Sunday." "We recognize there are arguments having to do with separation of powers. We think in a tragedy of this magnitude that those kinds of legal arguments are probably overridden."

Bush administration officials, however, dug in their heels, saying they would not change their position. Rice, in an interview Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes," said she did not want to set a precedent.

"Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify," Rice said. "I would really like to do that."

But she said the commission "derives its authority from the Congress," and added: "There is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisors do not testify before the Congress."

Rice acknowledged that some of her predecessors had appeared before congressional committees, but said those involved issues of "criminal intent or criminal allegations or impropriety" -- not administration policy.

Jamie S. Gorelick, a Democratic commission member who served as a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said the separation-of-powers argument was not relevant, noting that President Bush, and not Congress, had appointed Kean chairman.

"We are distinguishable from Congress," Gorelick said on ABC's "This Week." "And if that's what they are worried about, they ought to put it aside."

The pressure for Rice's testimony was the latest exchange in a political storm that broke out after Clarke made his claims March 21 on "60 Minutes." He followed his remarks with the publication of his book, "Against All Enemies," last Monday and with his dramatic testimony before the commission Wednesday.

The White House struck back with intensity. Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell all took to the airwaves over the last week to question Clarke's motives and his credibility.

On Sunday, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "Late Edition," Clarke urged a cease-fire from "character assassination." He said the focus should instead be on his two main charges: that the administration did not make Al Qaeda an "urgent" matter before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that Bush's decision to invade Iraq hurt the war on terrorism by diverting resources from the search for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

As he had previously, Clarke said Bush's advisors did not formally adopt a plan to confront Al Qaeda until Sept. 4, days before the attacks. He also said the war in Iraq removed Special Forces operatives from the hunt for Bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Administration officials challenged both of Clarke's assertions. Rumsfeld, on "This Week," called it "simplistic" to say that Special Forces troops had been diverted. Rice, on "60 Minutes," said the Bush team had followed President Clinton's anti-terrorism plan while it developed its more "robust" version adopted in September.

Also Sunday, Clarke urged that testimony he gave two years ago before a House-Senate intelligence panel be declassified. He challenged Rice to make public their e-mail exchanges to prove that he had been consistent in characterizing the Bush administration's response to terrorism.

In his appearance on "Meet the Press," Clarke dramatically displayed a handwritten letter, which he said Bush wrote after Clarke's retirement last year, in which the president praised him for serving with "distinction and honor."

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