Washington President Bush reversed himself under political pressure Tuesday and agreed to permit his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to testify in public and under oath before an independent commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Capitulating on a second point, Bush said he would submit to questions in a private session with all 10 commissioners, backing off his previous demand to meet only with Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton. Bush added a new restriction by saying he would appear only with Vice President Dick Cheney at his side.
Other Bush aides and Rice had said repeatedly, and as recently as Monday, that her refusal to provide formal testimony was a matter of constitutional principle and that to do so could erode the separation of powers between the executive branch and Congress, which created the commission.
Bush said Tuesday that he was willing to make the concession because he has been assured by the commission and congressional leaders that he would not be setting a precedent for future inquiries. He told reporters he had "ordered this level of cooperation because I consider it necessary to gaining a complete picture of the months and years that preceded the murder of our fellow citizens on September the 11th, 2001."
The decision represented an effort to quiet a controversy that threatened to undercut Bush's credibility on his handling of terrorism, a credential that is vital to his re-election strategy, and also resulted from his aides' conclusion that the showdown with the commission was drowning out the White House messages on all other issues.
The standoff had been going on for weeks, but public attention to it increased exponentially after last week's testimony by Richard Clarke, formerly Bush's counterterrorism director, that the administration failed to respond quickly enough to near-daily warnings about al-Qaida in the months before attacks.
Commission members, who questioned Rice in private for four hours in February, have said they were anxious to get her public testimony regarding discrepancies between White House statements and Clarke's assertions.
As Bush left the White House press room after reading a four-minute statement, he ignored questions about why he had changed his mind and why he did not do so sooner.
Kean and other commissioners praised the White House decision. "We want to understand the nature of the decision-making at the highest levels of government," Kean said. "We've got to try to clear up those discrepancies as best we can."
Democrats argued that the sequence of events in the Rice matter showed that Bush's principles lasted only until they conflicted with political expedience.
Aides urged testimony
Bush allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington said Rice had badly undercut her position by repeatedly granting high-profile television interviews to rebut Clarke, and in the process discussing at length the very subjects that were of interest to the commission.
"The president's aides finally realized that the most important element of this president retaining power was for him to remain president," said the political adviser, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because Bush's inner circle does not like to discuss deliberations publicly.
Administration officials said Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, and some other top aides had been arguing for some time that Rice should testify. The officials said White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales had been exploring for 10 days or more how Rice could be forthcoming while protecting the institution of the presidency.
The final agreement on the Rice testimony and the Bush and Cheney interview was reached about 8 p.m. Monday during a conference call between Gonzales and the commission leaders, Kean and Hamilton, according to an account by Kean. The White House then set to work on its formal offer to the commission, which was considered and unanimously accepted by the 10-member panel at a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, Kean said.
The agreement stipulates that the commission cannot tape-record the session with Bush and Cheney, but can bring along one note-taker, Kean said. The deal does not preclude the White House from recording the session, he said. Bush and Cheney will not be under oath, Kean said.
Gonzales made the offer Tuesday morning in a two-page letter to Kean and Hamilton stipulating that the commission "must agree in writing that Dr. Rice's testimony does not set any precedent for future commission requests," and "must agree in writing that it will not request additional public testimony from any White House official, including Dr. Rice."
Gonzales said he had received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., that "in their view, Dr. Rice's public testimony in connection with the extraordinary events" of Sept. 11 "does not set, and should not be cited, as a precedent for future requests for a national security adviser or any other White House official to testify before a legislative body."
During the past six months, the commission has engaged in nearly constant battle with the White House over access to documents and witnesses. The panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, has issued two subpoenas to the federal government for aviation and military records and twice threatened to do the same for access to presidential briefing materials. The panel also fought with the White House over an extension of its statutory deadline for issuing a report, which was originally set for May 27.
Bush said Rice would testify "so that the public record is full and accurate."
"Our nation must never forget the loss or the lessons of September the 11th, and we must not assume that the danger has passed," he said. "The commission knows its responsibility: to collect vital information and to present it to the American people. And I know my responsibility, as well: to act against the continuing threat and to protect the American people."