The two-day hearing in late March, to focus on U.S. counterterrorism policy, will be unprecedented in its review of high-level officials in the administrations of both Presidents Clinton and Bush, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Also scheduled to testify are Secretary of State Colin Powell (search); his predecessor Madeleine Albright; and Clinton's defense secretary, William Cohen.
"We're going to break new ground as we shift the focus from officials in the field to the highest officials in government and foreign policy both before 9/11 and today," Zelikow said.
In previous hearings, the commission has highlighted government missteps before the 2001 attacks, including miscommunications about Al Qaeda operatives dating back to the mid-1990s and hijackers who were allowed to enter the United States repeatedly despite lacking proper visa documentation. Up to now, however, the panel has not assigned blame beyond midlevel officials in federal agencies.
The panel is preparing to hold private meetings in the coming weeks with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney (search), Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore (search) about what their administrations knew before the attacks.
On Friday, Bush agreed to meet privately with commissioners but said it was unnecessary for him to testify publicly, and he would not. Cheney also has said he would meet with some commissioners, and Clinton and Gore have said they will cooperate in private meetings while not saying whether they would testify publicly.
Al Felzenberg, the commission's spokesman, said the panel was negotiating with the four officials about the times and formats of their meetings and hoped to have them scheduled in a matter of weeks. If held soon, the information they provide might be dealt with in March's hearing.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have demanded that the top government leaders testify publicly, under oath. Administration officials said during the weekend that Bush wants to meet privately with a few commissioners, not all 10 members of the bipartisan panel.
The Sept. 11 panel, formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before the attacks and its response. It also is to recommend ways to guard against similar disasters.