The White House reversed its opposition to President George W. Bush's national security advisor Condoleezza Rice giving sworn testimony to the independent commission looking into the September 11 attacks.
The administration said Rice would now appear before the commission in public but that certain conditions would be set. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have also agreed to appear before all 10 members of the commission instead of just the chairman and vice chairman.
Rice, 49, and the White House had previously said Bush's security advisor would not appear before the commission citing separation of the executive and legislative branches of government.
The September 11 panel welcomed the surprise turnaround by the White House.
"These decisions represent a significant contribution by the president to the work of the commission, consistent with our mandate to 'provide a full and complete accounting' of the terrorist attacks of September 11," the panel said in a statement.
The administration had come under intense pressure for Rice to testify publicly following criticism of Bush's counter-terrorism policies before the devastating attacks in 2001.
Former White House anti-terror czar Richard Clarke told the panel last week that Bush had not paid enough attention to the al-Qaeda threat.
"The President is prepared, subject to the conditions set forth below, to agree to the request of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States for public testimony, under oath, by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, Dr. Condoleezza Rice," White House counsel Alberto Gonzales said in a letter to the commission.
The letter also offered another "accommodation" to the panel, saying that Bush and Cheney "have agreed to one joint private session with all 10 commissioners, with one Commission staff member present to take notes of the session."
Despite White House insistence on the constitutional separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch of government, several members of the panel had openly called for Rice to appear publicly before the bipartisan commission.
On Sunday Rice said on US television that she would not testify publicly as she has already delivered private testimony to the group.
Gonzales did not set a date for Rice's appearance but said "we can schedule a time as soon as possible."
The White House lawyer said the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that killed some 3,000 people "present the most extraordinary and unique circumstances" that he said now compelled the administration to fulfill the panel's requests.
However, he stressed that this should not establish a precedent for future requests for Rice or any other White House official to testify "before a legislative body."
The panel's statement said it agreed with this position and that it would not view Rice's planned appearance as precedent-setting and that it would also work "to schedule both sessions promptly."
Rice, and senior Bush administration officials, have been forced to aggressively defend their records in the past couple of weeks following Clarke's highly critical claims.
Clarke alleges that Rice, his one-time boss, failed to adopt an urgent approach to international terrorism.
The claims triggered a widespread assault on Clarke's own record from White House officials, worried that president Bush's image as a defender of the people could be tarnished as he hits the campaign trail ahead of the November 2 US presidential election.
Although more Americans believe Bush is better equipped to manage antiterrorism threats compared to Senator John Kerry, who is opposing Bush in the presidential race, Bush's scorecard on the issue has taken a hit, according to a new poll.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed 53 percent of respondents say Bush can shield the country from future terrorist attacks, while only 29 percent say Kerry can stop future threats. A mid-March poll gave Bush a 57 percent to 32 percent edge.
Copyright © 2002 AFP