Rice to testify in public as White House backs down

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The Independent US

The White House succumbed to intense pressure yesterday and said it would allow Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, to testify in public before the commission investigating the September 2001 attacks. President George Bush and his deputy, Dick Cheney, will also jointly appear in a closed-door session.

The White House succumbed to intense pressure yesterday and said it would allow Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, to testify in public before the commission investigating the September 2001 attacks. President George Bush and his deputy, Dick Cheney, will also jointly appear in a closed-door session.

Just a day after the Bush administration had staunchly defended its decision not to allow Ms Rice to appear, it said that she would testify as long as it would not seen to set a precedent. The independent commission has accepted those terms and Ms Rice could appear before the panel within days.

In a letter to the commission investigating the attacks in New York and Washington, the White House lawyer Alberto Gonzales said the offer to appear was dependent on the administration receiving written assurances that such a step did not set a precedent and that the panel does not request "additional public testimony from any White House official, including Dr Rice".

The U-turn by the White House reveals its concern that the recent controversy over Ms Rice's refusal to appear could be seen as suggesting the Bush administration has something to hide over what it did or did not know in advance about al-Qa'ida's attack.

Such controversy has been fuelled by comments made by Richard Clarke, the former White House anti-terrorism adviser, who said President Bush and his senior officials had ignored warnings of the dangers presented by the terror network.

One consultant to the White House said Karl Rove, a senior political adviser with his eye on November's presidential election, had decided the controversy was becoming politically damaging. Rather than having to deal with questions such as "Was there an intelligence failure?", he wanted to move the focus of the election campaign to "Which candidate is better on security?".

The consultant told The New York Times: "If we're going to have a discussion about WMD and intelligence failures and Osama bin Laden, that's not an election George Bush wins. If it's about who keeps you safer, that's the ground we want to be on."

The White House can save a little face by maintaining that the commission's undertaking about a precedent has ensured the principle on which it had refused to allow Ms Rice to appear had been retained.

Administration lawyers had based their position on the long-standing tradition that presidential advisers such as Ms Rice who have not been confirmed by the US Senate cannot give public testimony. Mr Gonzales, in his letter to the commission, said: "The President recognises the truly unique and extraordinary circumstances underlying the commission's responsibility to prepare a detailed report on the facts." But the administration's overwhelming concern is presenting itself as a government with nothing to hide over 11 September.

That is probably why Mr Bush and Mr Cheney also agreed to appear in a single joint private session with all 10 of the panel members, and one commission staff member to take notes. Mr Bush had said before that he would talk only to the panel's chairman and deputy.

On Monday, both officials said they would ask Ms Rice to testify under oath in any future questioning because of discrepancies between her statements and those made in sworn testimony by President Bush's former counter-terrorism chief. "I would like to have her testimony under the penalty of perjury," said the commission's chairman, Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey.

When Ms Rice appeared privately with several members of the commission in February she was not required to be under oath and officials said that no transcript of the four-hour conversation was kept.

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