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Rice rejects calls for public testimony
Updated: 2004-03-29 09:16

White House allies and Republicans investigating the Sept. 11 attacks pressed Sunday to hear open testimony from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, with one commissioner calling her refusal a "political blunder of the first order."

Condoleezza Rice Richard Clarke
Rice said in a TV interview that she wants to meet with the families of the Sept. 11 victims because she knows they are disappointed she cannot testify publicly. "Nothing would be better ... than to be able to testify," Rice told CBS's "60 Minutes."

President Bush, spending a long weekend on his Texas ranch, gave no ground, and several aides said he will not change his mind on letting Rice testify. But Bush sent her and other top administration officials out for television interviews to rebut fresh attacks on the way his administration has handled the threat of terrorism.

Sharpening his criticism, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said President Clinton was more aggressive than Bush in trying to confront al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's organization.

"He did something, and President Bush did nothing prior to September 11," Clarke told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I think they deserve a failing grade for what they did before" Sept. 11, Clarke said of the Bush's administration. "They never got around to doing anything."

Clarke said a sweeping declassification of documents would prove that the Bush administration neglected the threat of terrorism in the nine months leading up to the attacks.

He said he sought declassification of all six hours of his testimony before a congressional committee two years ago. Some Republicans have said that testimony about Sept. 11 contradicts Clarke's current criticism.

Clarke said he also wanted Rice's previous interview before the independent Sept. 11 commission declassified, along with e-mails between him and Rice, and other documents, including a memo he sent on Jan. 25, 2001 offering a road map to the new Bush administration on how to confront al-Qaida, and the directive that a National Security Council adopted on Sept. 4, 2001.

The material will prove that Bush was "lackadaisical" about terrorism before the attacks, Clarke said, because "they're basically the same thing. And they wasted months when we could have had some action."

Rice says the approach formulated over the eight-month span was "a more comprehensive plan to eliminate al-Qaida."

Asked about Clarke's request for the declassification, Secretary of State Colin Powell on CBS' "Face the Nation," said, "My bias will be to provide this information in an unclassified manner not only to the commission, but to the American people."

White House spokesman Jim Morrell said decisions on declassification "will be made in discussion with the 9/11 commission." One senior administration official said the White House and intelligence community would never agree to release the Sept. 4 national security directive, because it contains sensitive information on sources and methods.

Members of the Sept. 11 commissioner made clear they will not relent in their pursuit of public testimony from Rice, but said they were not inclined to subpoena her.

The White House has declined to let her appear at the commission's televised hearings, citing the constitutional principle of separation of powers; the panel was created by Congress.

"Condi Rice would be a superb witness. She is anxious to testify. The president would dearly love to have her testify," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters. "But the lawyers have concluded that to do so would alter the balance if we got into the practice of doing that."

Rice was interviewed by the panel behind closed doors on Feb. 7. The administration has offered a second private session with Rice, but the commission has not accepted.

Rice was "very, very forthcoming in her first meeting with us," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican named by Bush to lead the commission.

"But we do feel unanimously as a commission that she should testify in public. We feel it's important to get her case out there. We recognize there are arguments having to do with separation of powers. We think in a tragedy of this magnitude that those kind of legal arguments are probably overridden," Kean told "Fox News Sunday."

Commissioner John Lehman, another Republican, said Rice "has nothing to hide, and yet this is creating the impression for honest Americans all over the country and people all over the world that the White House has something to hide, that Condi Rice has something to hide."

"And if they do, we sure haven't found it. There are no smoking guns. That's what makes this so absurd. It's a political blunder of the first order," Lehman told ABC's "This Week."

A White House ally, Richard Perle, said, "I think she would be wise to testify."

Perle, who resigned last month as an adviser to the Pentagon, said he recognized the constitutional concerns at issue. "Sometimes you have to set those aside because the circumstances require it," he told CNN's "Late Edition."

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commissioner, noted in an interview with The Associated Press that several White House staff in recent years have appeared before legislative bodies, including former national security adviser Sandy Berger when he was in office. Rice's several media appearances also undermine the White House's position, he said.

"I fail to see the logic on the one hand relying on the confidentiality of such communications with the president and yet appearing everywhere except the one entity that has been created for the express purpose of investigating and holding public hearings on 9/11," he said.

Rice was to appear on the CBS program "60 Minutes" on Sunday night.

Clarke accused the Bush administration of waging a "campaign to destroy me professionally and personally," and called on the White House to "raise the level of discourse."

Reacting to charges that his new book represented "profiteering" from the terrorist attacks, Clarke said he planned to donate a "substantial" but unspecified portion of its sales to the attacks' survivors and to the widows and children of military personnel who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Clarke also fired back at the administration by reading Bush's response to his resignation letter.

Noting it was in the president's handwriting, Clarke said the letter read that he would "be missed. You served our nation with distinction and honor," and had "left a positive mark on our government."

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