WASHINGTON – When she testifies before the commission reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks, Condoleezza Rice (search) will face pointed questions about what outgoing Clinton administration officials told her about terrorism - and how urgently the new Bush administration regarded Al Qaeda's (search) threat.
She also may face questions about her credibility.
"We want to hear from Dr. Rice ... (about) the kind of threats and dangers that were apparent to her before 9-11," said Thomas H. Kean, the Republican chairman of the Sept. 11 commission (search) and a former New Jersey governor.
"We want to talk about the day of and the immediate response of the White House. We want to understand what substantive differences there are, perhaps in testimony between Dr. Rice and any other witnesses," he said.
In a reversal, the White House agreed Tuesday to allow Rice to testify publicly and under oath before the 10-member panel as early as next week. The administration previously had insisted she meet privately with the commission, citing constitutional concerns, but eventually bowed to public pressure.
The panel and relatives of Sept. 11 victims say they want Rice to clear up, under threat of perjury, conflicting statements made by herself and Richard Clarke (search), a former White House counterterrorism chief who served under both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
One issue concerns a memo Clarke drafted in late 2000 after the attack on the USS Cole (search). The memo, which he forwarded to Rice in January 2001, called for urgent action against Al Qaeda, including covert aid to the Northern Alliance (search) that was battling the Taliban (search) in Afghanistan, and for new Predator (search) drone missions.
Clarke says Rice put him off, in part because it was a Clinton holdover plan and terrorism wasn't an urgent priority. Rice says the memo was just a "set of ideas" that needed a more comprehensive review. Components of the plan were finally approved by top Bush officials on Sept. 4, 2001.
"There are some key questions: Was terrorism an urgent priority? How quickly was the decision made? Was it slow as Mr. Clarke says or accelerated as Dr. Rice says?" said commissioner Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
"Was their plan handed off from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, and was the ultimate decision on Sept. 4 significantly different from the Jan. 25 memo from Clarke, and did that justify the bottom-up review?" he said.
In part, the questioning may divide along party lines.
Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, said he wanted to determine whether the attacks could have been reasonably prevented. He noted that Clarke said the attacks would have happened even if the administration had quickly adopted his proposals.
"Our greatest interest, I think, is going to be in the facts. You know, what in fact did each of the administrations do? What kind of plans did they have? What kind of plans did they adopt?" Gorton said.
"We need to get everyone's views, but particularly we need to find out what everyone did at the time, not what their 20/20 hindsight is," Gorton said.
During last week's hearings, Clarke was criticized by Republican commissioners who questioned whether he had political motives. They cited instances when Clarke had praised the Bush administration's policies.
Similarly, critics say Rice should explain publicly a May 2002 statement she made that no one could have predicted that a hijacked airplane could be used as a missile. Intelligence reports later made public revealed that officials had in fact considered the possibility several times.
"I'm glad she modified the statement, because at the very least we should have anticipated the possibility of a domestic hijacking," said commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska.
Other points commissioners will probably ask Rice to clarify:
-Military options. Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger (search) testified that he told Bush officials the United States had been militarily attacked by Al Qaeda on a number of occasions, and that there was growing evidence the group was responsible for the 2000 Cole attacks.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified that military action wasn't considered early on because public support was low and intelligence wasn't strong enough.
- Iraq. Clarke has charged that the Bush administration was distracted with Iraq in the months before Sept. 11 and that on the day after the attacks, Bush pushed him to find an Iraqi link. Rice has said Iraq was considered as one of many possible terror threats and that in planning a retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, a map of Afghanistan, not Iraq was placed on a table at Camp David (search).
Rice "is a very important witness for the American people to hear because of where she's been sitting and her experience at the senior reaches of government," said Jamie Gorelick, a commissioner who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.
"She says she wants to address discrepancies, and the bottom line is that her testimony will be very important," she said.