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Rice's Refusal Bothers Commissioners
Published on Wednesday, March 24, 2004 by USA Today
Rice's Refusal Bothers Commissioners
by Mimi Hall, Andrea Stone and Judy Keen
 

WASHINGTON — Members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks complained angrily Tuesday that Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, has refused to testify publicly about the Bush administration's counterterrorism policy yet has appeared on several TV programs to defend the administration.

"We're disappointed that she's not gong to appear to answer our questions," said commission Chairman Tom Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey.

Rice has been interviewed privately by members of the commission but declined a request for a public session.

Commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, held up a new book, Against All Enemies, that accuses Bush and his aides of ignoring warnings of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. The author, Richard Clarke, who was in charge of counterterrorism for Bush and President Clinton, has been discussing his charges in TV interviews.

Roemer said the discussion "belongs not on the airwaves" but before the commission.

"I hope Dr. Rice will reconsider and come before the commission for the sake of the American people," he said.

The audience at Tuesday's hearing included many people who lost family members in the attacks in 2001. They applauded each time commissioners criticized Rice's decision not to appear and testify under oath.

Rice met privately with the panel for four hours at the White House on Feb. 7. Afterward, Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the panel, said, "It was a very useful interview, and I personally found Dr. Rice to be candid and forthcoming. I think it would be useful for the public to hear from Dr. Rice."

But White House officials say it is inappropriate for a presidential adviser who is not a Senate-confirmed Cabinet officer to publicly discuss confidential advice.

The administration made the same argument in 2002 when it said Tom Ridge, then director of homeland security, would not testify under oath before Congress. Under pressure from Congress, the White House backed down, and he did testify.

"It's a long-standing principle that the president's advisers do not testify in front of congressional committees," Rice said Tuesday on Fox News Radio's Tony Snow Show. "So, as much as I would like to be able to do this, it would really not be a good precedent."

The White House says previous administrations had the same policy.

The bipartisan commission, although it was set up by Congress, does not fall under congressional rules.

Ben-Veniste, who was a Watergate prosecutor, cited examples of non-Cabinet presidential advisers who have testified publicly to Congress. Among them: Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel under Clinton; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter; and Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security adviser. Berger is scheduled to testify before the commission today.

Some legal experts say Rice could be subpoenaed.

Democrats have speculated that she is reluctant to testify under oath or in public because of her comment in May 2002 that no one "could have predicted that (terrorists) would try to use a hijacked airplane as a missile."

News reports indicated later that intelligence officials had considered the possibility of such strikes as recently as a month before the attacks.

The commission is expected to decide within a week whether to subpoena notes taken by four commissioners in December when they reviewed classified presidential briefing papers, including an August 2001 memorandum that discusses the possibility of airline hijackings by al-Qaeda terrorists.

The commissioners were allowed to take notes but not to remove the notes from the room.

© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc

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