Following are excerpts from a letter sent by White House Chief Counsel Alberto Gonzalez to former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton, the commission's vice-chairman, concerning the possibility of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appearing before the panel. The letter was released by the White House Thursday, March 25, 2004.
In particular, further discussion would clear up a repeated mischaracterization yesterday of Dr. Rice's March 15, 2004 op-ed in the Washington Post. Commissioner Gorelick suggested that Dr. Rice's statement in the Post editorial that "[o]ur plan called for military options to attack al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, ground forces and other targets — taking the fight to the enemy where he lived" was inaccurate. In fact, as records made available months ago to the Commission demonstrate, the draft national Security Presidential Directive on al Qaeda approved by Deputies and Principals before September 11, 2001 included a direction to the Department of Defense to plan for military action against: "Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control, air and air defense, ground forces and logistics" (as well as numerous al Qaeda targets). It is clear, then, that Dr. Rice's Washington Post op-ed was entirely consistent with the documentary record provided to the Commission.
In addition, I want to inform you that certain statements made during this week's hearings conducted by the Commission, and during television appearances of certain Commissioners, concerning prior testimony of Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs ("National Security Advisors") are inaccurate. Commissioner Ben-Veniste, for example, repeatedly cited an April 5, 2002 Congressional Research Service report for the proposition that "other national security advisers have come before the Congress and have testified in open session, including Mr. Berger, including Zbigniew Brzezinski." The Commissioner reiterated during your hearing that Mr. Berger, twice, "did in fact come and testify in open session."
These statements left the misimpression that sitting National Security Advisors have regularly testified in public to legislative bodies (such as the Commission) concerning policy matters. A careful review of the CRS report indicates that each example cited by Commissioner Ben-Veniste is distinct from the Commission's request that Dr. Rice testify publicly about policy matters. The first appearance by Mr. Berger cited in the report (May 3, 1994), when he was Deputy National Security Advisor, was to provide "a policy briefing on Haiti." Contrary to Commissioner Ben-Veniste's statements, however, the Congressional Record and records on the U.S. Senate's website both indicate that this was a closed briefing, substantially similar to the meeting Dr. Rice has already had with the Commission, and which she has offered to have again. The other appearance by Mr. Berger cited by Commissioner Ben-Veniste (September 11, 1997, in connection with the campaign finance investigation) was in public, but in decidedly different circumstances. This appearance by Mr. Berger, according to CRS, like the two examples cited by Commissioner Ben-Veniste from the Carter Administration, was in connection with potential improper or illegal conduct.
Neither the CRS paper cited by Commissioner Ben-Veniste nor, so far as I know, any other authority, reveals any example of a sitting National Security Advisor appearing publicly before a legislative body outside the context of potential improper or illegal conduct. However, that report and our own research indicate a number of example of sitting National Security Advisors declining to appear under such circumstances, including:
**Samuel Berger declined to testify on June 10, 1999 concerning the theft of nuclear weapons secrets by China; and
**Anthony Lake declined to testify in 1996 concerning the Administration's Bosnia policy.
More important than the legal precedents are the principles underlying the Constitutional separation of powers at stake here. In order for President Bush and future Presidents to continue to receive the best and most candid possible advice from their White House staff on counterterrorism and other national security issues, it is important that these advisers not be compelled to testify publicly before congressional bodies such as the Commission.
As Vice Chairman Hamilton noted on NewsHour on February 11th: "I think we have adequate information from these Presidential briefings, and from thousands, millions of other documents, and 900 interviews conducted thus far, with probably several hundred to go. When you put all of this together, we're going to be able to fulfill our mandate and tell the story of September 11th." I agree, and look forward to continuing to work with the Commission to obtain the information it needs to fulfill its statutory mandate without jeopardizing the ability of President Bush and future Presidents to receive candid advice from their National Security Advisors and to better protect our Nation.
Alberto R. Gonzales
Counsel to the President