WASHINGTON – When she testifies publicly before the Sept. 11 commission, Condoleezza Rice will be making an election-year defense of the Bush's administration's anti-terrorism policy prior to the 2001 attacks.
"We want to understand the nature of the decision-making in the highest levels of government," commission chairman Thomas Kean (search) said after the White House reversed course Tuesday and agreed to let Rice, who is Bush's national security adviser, testify publicly.
"We want to hear about the transition," he said Wednesday on CBS' "The Early Show." "What did she learn from the Clinton people about terrorism? What they knew. Then what kind of policy did the Bush people have that was different from the Clinton administration? What did they know about Al Qaeda and (Usama) bin Laden?"
Presented with differing accounts of how the government approached terrorism pre-Sept. 11, the commission will be exploring in the midst of a presidential campaign who is more believable, the Bush administration or its critics.
Administration officials said it was likely that Rice's appearance would come at the end of next week.
Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke (search), contends the president had been slow to act against Al Qaeda before the attacks.
Kean said Wednesday he found Clarke "a good witness and a very important witness because he went over both administrations. On the other hand, we know now that the head of the CIA briefed the president every single morning ... so the president was certainly well informed on it. Now whether or not Mister Clarke was in the loop the way he should have been, my suspicion is — and this is in two administrations — that looking in hindsight there is some blame to go around."
Turning aggressively public, Rice fired back in a series of interviews such as the one Sunday in which she declared, "I don't know what a sense of urgency — any greater than the one that we had — would have caused us to do differently."
The commission made clear that Rice's assertions in her media interviews will be fair game for their inquiry.
"It's not necessarily ... what Condi Rice said to us in the four or five hours we had with her" in a private interview early this year, Kean told reporters. "Sometimes it's some of the things she said to all of you.
"We're going to try and clear up the discrepancies as best we can," said Kean. "Some of those questions may be important to the fact-finding of our report. And obviously we will in our hearing go to some of those questions."
The commission also plans to schedule a joint private interview with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search). All 10 commissioners are invited, and one staff member will take notes. There are no plans for public release of the notes.
Kean said on CBS he is not concerned that Bush will not be testifying under oath.
"First of all, it's very unusual for presidents to testify or meet with any kind of commission," he said.
"Most president's have refused in the past," he added, noting that President Johnson declined to appear before the Warren Commission (search) investigating the assassination of President Kennedy.
Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, said she is satisfied with the plans for the private testimony of Bush and Cheney.
"As long as the commission as a whole has enough time to ask them the questions that they need to ask and as long as there is honesty and forthcomingness in their questions, the families will be pleased," she said.
Regarding Rice, legal experts expressed surprise that the White House had opened itself up for heavy criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans by refusing to let her testify, with retreat seemingly inevitable.
"It was not fair to have ... Richard Clarke be put under oath and then have" Rice "answer those charges in the press and not have it under oath," said Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official in the Clinton administration.
"I think she's absolutely critical to the 9-11 investigation," Greenberger added. "Even before Richard Clarke testified there was a substantial record that Clinton administration officials had specifically told her and deputy Stephen Hadley on the changeover that Al Qaeda was the No. 1 national security priority."
The commission recently contacted Clinton's presidential library, where federal archivists spent three months gathering 6,000 documents which they turned over to the investigation. Presidential records ordinarily are sealed for five years.
Kean and the commission's vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton (search), acknowledged that the panel's final report may not be released by the July 26 deadline, depending on how fast the White House declassifies its contents.
White House Chief of Staff Andy Card is setting up a process to expedite declassification, and the commission may submit portions of the report early to administration officials to ensure a punctual release.
The commission plans to hold public hearings April 13-14 on failures in intelligence and law enforcement, with witnesses to include Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Attorney General Janet Reno, CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.