WASHINGTON – Hoping to quell fiery allegations that the Bush administration underestimated threat intelligence leading up to Sept. 11 (search) terror attacks, the White House is willing to allow a second private meeting between Condoleezza Rice (search) and the federal panel investigating the terrorist attacks.
In a letter late Thursday to the independent Sept. 11 commission, the White House stated that another session would allow President Bush's top national security aide to clear up "a number of mischaracterizations" of her statements and positions.
Rice, who has spoken frequently and written about the administration's pre- and post-Sept. 11 strategy, still would not testify publicly before the panel, as the members and many relatives of victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks want.
In his letter, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote that it was important that presidential advisers such as Rice "not be compelled to testify publicly before congressional bodies such as the (Sept. 11) commission."
The White House move follows highly publicized testimony to the commission this week by Richard Clarke (search), a counterterrorism adviser to the past three presidents and author of a new book critical of Bush. Clarke, who left his White House post 13 months ago, told the commission on Wednesday that the administration accorded a lower priority to combatting the Al Qaeda terror organization when it came to power than the outgoing Clinton administration had shown. He also said the invasion of Iraq undermined the war on terror.
With Clarke striking at the heart of Bush's re-election strategy, the White House has mounted a furious counterattack, dispatching Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials to challenge Clarke, accusing him of rewriting history to sell copies of his tell-all book.
"He needs to get his story straight," Rice said as the White House identified Clarke as the senior official who had praised Bush's anti-terrorism efforts in an anonymous briefing for reporters in 2002.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan continued the assault on Thursday, saying Clarke "has a growing credibility problem."
"He continues to make statements that are flat-out wrong," McClellan said.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle joined the fray, accusing the administration of "character assassination" against Clarke.
Bush defended his handling of the war on terror during a trip to New Hampshire on Thursday, without mentioning Clarke by name.
"Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to strike America, to attack us, I would have used every resource, every asset, every power of this government to protect the American people," the president said.
Public trust in the president's judgment was relatively high after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington and spiked up again during the Iraq war. But the percentage of people who trust Bush has fallen below 50 percent in some polls since.
The president's job approval rating dipped sharply after weapons inspector David Kay said in January he did not believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Republican and Democratic members of the Sept. 11 commission have urged the administration to abandon its refusal to allow Rice to testify publicly. Some GOP members of Congress, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they also believed Rice should appear, at least in part to rebut Clarke.
Rice had said Wednesday she was willing to return for another private session with the commission. She met privately with the commission, formally the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, for about four hours on Feb. 7.
"I also have a responsibility to make sure that the commission knows everything that I know, and that's why I spent four hours with them, and I'm prepared to spend longer with them anywhere they want, any time they want, answer as many questions as they have," she told reporters.
The letter from Gonzales to former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican and the commission chairman, and commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, represented the White House's formal offer of Rice's return.
The White House said Rice wanted to rebut statements made in this week's public testimony before the panel. In particular, Gonzales said Rice wanted the chance to argue that she was not inaccurate when she wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece this week that administration plans before Sept. 11 called for military options to strike Al Qaeda and the Taliban rulers in Afghanistan.
Gonzales also said statements that other national security advisers have testified before Congress in open session were wrong. Previous testimony from national security advisers have either been in closed session or involved potential criminal wrongdoing, making those situations markedly different from the current one, Gonzales said. In fact, the more common occurrence is for national security advisers to decline to appear publicly, he said.
The commission also has been denied the opportunity to question Bush and Cheney in open session. The White House has agreed to allow those interviews to occur only privately, and only with two commissioners.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.