Transcript: What Gets Compromised Once Condoleezza Rice Publicly Testifies?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, March 30, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Presidential advisers like Condoleezza Rice (search) are supposed to be able to advise freely and in confidence. That's the idea behind not forcing them to testify in public.

Is the Rice case different because of Sept. 11? Are there good reasons for the White House to want to hold her back?

C. Boyden Gray (search) was legal counsel for the first President Bush. He joins me from Washington. Today's big question, Mr. Gray, what gets compromised if a president's briefings are divulged?

C. BOYDEN GRAY, FMR. WHITE HOUSE LEGAL COUNSEL: Well, what gets compromised is the future. Staff are not going to tell the president what they really think if they're going to have to tell the public what they really thought six months later. They will trim what they tell the president. They will not be completely candid and the president will not get their innermost, fairest thoughts. It's a principle that's recognized actually by all three branches. Senators and Congressmen don't want their own staff to have to reveal anymore more than the president wants his. And, certainly, Supreme Court justices (search) don't normally parade their law clerks out in public. So it's a principle recognized by all three branches. It's terribly, terribly, important. You don't want a president of the United States uninformed.

GIBSON: All right, but having said that, there are obviously circumstances in which the president would wave that confidentiality as he has here. So, as an adviser, as a legal counsel to a president, under what circumstances would you say, look, you've got to go ahead and do this as apparently was advised here?

GRAY: Only in the most extraordinary circumstances, and only under the most limited constraints.

GIBSON: Do these fit that definition?

GRAY: This certainly fits that definition. This is a one in a lifetime thing, hopefully. And they've gotten assurances, because they pressed, they pressed very, very, hard the White House did. They got assurances from the commission there will be no more of this in this investigation. And they got assurances from leaders of Congress that they will not use this against the president in normal Congressional hearing oversight.

GIBSON: Now, Mr. Gray, let's make you a White House adviser, a legal counsel to this President Bush. What is the down side, or is there a down side to Condoleezza Rice testifying? She appears to be quite well able to handle herself, and quite well able to handle this commission. Do you see a problem, other than what you've already outlined with her testifying?

GRAY: No. The White House was quite anxious, I think, for her to testify, as was she. She is a great witness, will be a great witness. The White House is paying a steep political price for this principle. But I think they were right to hang in there until they got the assurances about the presidential value of it, because five years from now what people will remember is that she testified, not what, in fact, she said.

GIBSON: All right. But what difference does that really make? I mean, nobody is going to take the agreement between the commission and the president as a way to escape the precedent that an adviser did testify.

GRAY: Well, I think that they've gotten assurances and statements from the leadership in the Congress that they will be able to use, or some future White House — heck, it might be Senator Kerry for all we know, who will be able to use in the future. And what I think people ought to understand here is that in these situations of conflict between branches, what goes around will always come around. And Democrats will have to live with this just as Republicans will.

GIBSON: Right, but ...

GRAY: And so therefore, it's important — a president takes an oath to uphold the duties of his office, in addition to the constitution itself. And a president has to fight for this candor that he's entitled to. Now, there comes a time when you have to know when to fold 'em, as they say, in poker. And I think the president did just the right thing here by waiting until he got an absolute assurances that this was a one-off event.

GIBSON: OK. This then becomes the issue, the waiting becomes the issue. As you said, it has come at a steep political price. Many, many Americans who don't pay as close attention as you and I do are saying Bush didn't want his people going up there. Bush seems to have something to hide. The waiting has cost him in that department. Why do you think it was worth that wait?

GRAY: I don't think the waiting will have cost him that. If she is going to go out, I think that people will — those who — most people won't know that she had held off for a few days and that will all be forgotten. That will all be forgotten. What he got in return is this assurance from the commission that there will be no further questions about White House staff, which is really rather remarkable. I can think of no — I can think of no previous instance where the Congressional leadership spoke in advance and said that a particular appearance would not be of any use to them presidentially in their Congressional oversight responsibilities.

GIBSON: C. Boyden Gray, legal counsel for the first President Bush. Mr. Gray, it is always good to see you. Thanks for coming on.

GRAY: My pleasure.

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