Published on Saturday, March 27, 2004 by the New York Daily News
White House Retreat on 9/11 Claims
by Kenneth R Bazinet and Thomas M DeFrank
WASHINGTON - A member of the 9/11 commission said yesterday that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice indicated in a private session she was wrong to have once stated no one expected terrorists to use planes as missiles.
The White House reportedly also backpedaled yesterday on whether President Bush pressed counterterror czar Richard Clarke the day after the attacks to find evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was involved.
Clarke said the meeting occurred in the White House Situation Room and presidential aides said earlier this week the meeting never happened. But CBS News reported last night that White House aides now concede the meeting "probably" occurred.
The conflicting versions of events before and after 9/11 will ensure that debate will continue through the weekend over Clarke's accusations that Bush downgraded the importance of counterterrorism.
Clarke, Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will all appear on talk shows tomorrow to press their case.
Rice, who has refused to testify before the panel under oath and in public, met with the commission privately for four hours Feb. 7.
One issue was her May 16, 2002, statement at the White House when she said, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center . . . that they would try to use . . . a hijacked airplane as a missile." Intelligence reports had detailed such plans as much as five years before 9/11.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 panel, said that during a closed door session Rice revised that statement.
"She corrected [herself] in our private interview by saying, 'I could not anticipate that they would try to use an airplane as a missile,' but acknowledging that the intelligence community could anticipate it," Ben-Veniste said.
"No reports of the use of airplanes as weapons were briefed or presented to Dr. Rice prior to May 2002," said her spokesman Sean McCormack.
The White House is insisting that Rice get another shot before the panel to rebuff sensational charges by Clarke, but commissioners are still balking at Rice's position that she cannot testify under oath and in public because of executive privilege.
"This [latest discrepancy] is yet another reason why we need to have Dr. Rice come before us in public rather than at the highest classified level," said Democratic commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Indiana congressman.
Even some of Rice's associates as well as congressional Republicans think muzzling Rice is a political blunder. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday he supports the decision, but he added, "Personally, I think her voice is so good, so powerful that to have her come before the 9/11 commission publicly would be to the administration's benefit."
With James Gordon Meek
©2004 2004 Daily News