WASHINGTON – National security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search ) will go before the federal panel reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks next Thursday to rebut criticism that the Bush administration failed to grasp the gravity of the terrorism threat before the hijackings.
She'll be the only witness during a 2 ½-hour public hearing focusing on what Clinton administration officials told the incoming Bush White House about Al Qaeda and what the new administration did with the information.
"We really want to find out about the transition, what they learned, and what changes in policy the Bush administration decided and what focus there was on terrorism," commission Chairman Thomas Kean (search) said in an interview.
Rice's performance could have enormous implications for President Bush's re-election campaign, which took a hit when former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke (search) testified last week that the Bush administration didn't consider Al Qaeda an urgent threat despite his repeated warnings.
Rice had resisted testifying publicly in favor of meeting privately with the commission, citing legal concerns. But after mounting pressure, the White House this week agreed to let her appear before the panel after getting assurances the move would not be seen as legal precedent that could force other presidential advisers before congressionally appointed panels.
Later Thursday, the White House released fragments of a top-secret document finalized Sept. 4, 2001, that directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for attacking Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The National Security Presidential Directive, normally classified, called on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to plan for military options "against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control, air and air defense, ground forces, and logistics."
The NSPD also called for plans "against Al Qaeda and associated terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control-communications, training, and logistics facilities."
Meantime, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., sent separate letters to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales asking him to explain why calls were placed to two Republican commissioners during Clarke's testimony.
At the hearings, those commissioners — Fred Fielding, a former White House counsel under Ronald Reagan, and James Thompson, a former Illinois governor — questioned whether Clarke had political motives and pointed to prior instances in which Clarke had praised the Bush administration's policies.
Kean, a former Republican New Jersey governor, said he didn't consider it inappropriate that Fielding and Thompson were in contact with the White House when Clarke was testifying.
Kean said he and commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, had specifically instructed Fielding and Thompson to maintain regular contacts with the White House as "go-betweens" to try to get Rice to publicly testify.
"We were doing our very best to get Dr. Rice on that day of the hearing," Kean said. "Commissioner Thompson came to me during Mr. Clarke's testimony and told me that he had made one final try to get Dr. Rice.
"Would I have an objection if the White House had questions? No." Kean added. "I get questions from congressmen in both parties. I think questions come from all sources. It doesn't bother me too much where the commissioners get their ideas for questions."
Scott McClellan, spokesman for Bush, dismissed the notion that Gonzales provided the Republican commissioners with information about Clarke.
"Judge Gonzales and the counsel's office is in contact with the commission all the time to make sure they have the information they need to do their job," he said.
Some relatives of Sept. 11 victims called on Fielding and Thompson to sign an affidavit that they didn't get White House assistance in preparing their questioning of Clarke.
"Critical to the success of the work of the 9-11 commission is its ability to remain nonpartisan and independent," the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission said in a statement.
Fielding did not return calls for comment, and an assistant to Thompson said he was unavailable until Monday.
McClellan also played down the significance of a speech Rice was scheduled to deliver on Sept. 11, 2001, but never did due to the attacks. It addressed "the threats and problems of today and the day after" and focused on missile defense, with little discussion of terrorism from Islamic radicals, according to The Washington Post, which obtained a copy.
"I think you need to look at the actions and concrete steps that we were taking to confront the threat on terrorism," McClellan said. "This administration doesn't measure commitment based on one speech or one conference call or one meeting."