After months of negotiations and mounting public pressure, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have agreed to meetings with the federal commission investigating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Bush and Cheney will meet in private with the commission and will not be placed under oath. Rice will testify before the full commission in public and under oath. The dates for the meetings are still being scheduled.
In exchange for the meetings, however, the commission agreed in writing to a White House condition that it would not request additional public testimony from any White House official, including Rice. Other White House officials will provide the commission with information only through private meetings, briefings and documents, under the agreement. The commission also had to agree to let Bush and Cheney meet together with the commission, as opposed to giving separate interviews.
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said the panel reached unanimous consensus on the conditions on Tuesday. The conditions were acceptable because the commission does not plan to call any other White House officials before a public hearing between now and the time it finishes its work at the end of July, and all commissioners wanted to meet with Bush and Cheney. Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton noted that the commission reserves the right to meet privately with White House officials.
Until Tuesday, the White House said Bush and Cheney would only meet with Kean and Hamilton, and Rice would not be allowed to testify publicly.
Rice met Feb. 7, 2004, in a private session with the commission, but public pressure mounted after commission hearings last week for Rice to testify publicly and under oath.
Kean and Hamilton acknowledged Tuesday that there are apparent discrepancies between testimony given by officials last week and statements Rice made to the commission last month and in the media during the last week. Specifically, commission staff is examining testimony by Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism chief under Clinton and Bush, and comparing it to comments made by Rice.
Kean said some questions the commission wants to ask Rice relate to what the Bush administration was told when it transitioned into office; what kind of threats were apparent to Rice before the attacks; what the Bush administration's response was on the day of the attacks; and how decision-making worked between senior-level officials in the Bush administration compared with those in the administration of former President Clinton.
"We've got to try to clear up the discrepancies as best we can," Kean said.
The Sept. 11 Family Steering Committee, which has been lobbying hard for Rice to testify publicly under oath, welcomed news that an agreement was reached.
"More than anything, the families want to know why our nation was so vulnerable to 19 hijackers on the morning of [Sept. 11]," the committee said in a statement. "We look forward to Ms. Rice answering questions about her priorities as national security adviser to the President, the processes used before, and after, [Sept. 11] to share critical intelligence and other related data regarding this country's counter terrorism activities within the government, her knowledge of al Qaeda, and her role, and the role of the [National Security Council] leading up to, on, and after the morning of [Sept. 11]."
The committee said the condition preventing other White House officials from testifying publicly "is of particular concern because decisions made by those officials on the day of [Sept. 11] are critically important to provide a full accounting to the American public."
Former President Clinton and former Vice President Gore have agreed to meet with the full commission. The meeting times are still being scheduled.