Bush to Limit Testimony Before 9/11 Panel
By PHILIP SHENON
ASHINGTON, Feb. 25 — President Bush
and Vice President Dick Cheney have placed strict limits on the private
interviews they will grant to the federal commission investigating the
Sept. 11 attacks, saying that they will meet only with the panel's top
two officials and that Mr. Bush will submit to only a single hour of
questioning, commission members said Wednesday.
which has 10 members and is bipartisan, said in a statement that it had
also been informed by the White House that Condoleezza Rice, the
national security adviser, had rejected its request that she testify in
public about the intelligence reports that reached her desk before the
Sept. 11 attacks.
Democratic members of the panel said the administration's moves raised
new questions about its willingness to cooperate with the commission,
which is investigating intelligence and law enforcement blunders in the
months and years before the 2001 attacks. The White House initially
opposed creating the panel.
Republican Congressional leaders have criticized the investigation's
pace. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said he would not support and might
block any legislation that extended the life of the panel, which is
scheduled to complete its work in May.
The commission called on Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney to reconsider their decision against meeting with all 10 members of the panel.
"President Bush and Vice President Cheney have agreed to meet privately
with the chair and vice chair but prefer not to meet with all members,"
the statement said, referring to the chairman, Thomas H. Kean, a
Republican and former governor of New Jersey; and vice chairman, Lee
H. Hamilton, a Democrat and former House member from Indiana. "We hope
the president and the vice president will reconsider."
The panel said it was "disappointed" by Ms. Rice's decision not to
testify at a public hearing, adding, "We believe the nation would be
well served by the contribution she can make to public understanding of
the intelligence and policy issues being examined by the commission."
Ms. Rice has submitted to several hours of questioning at a private
session. Her spokesman, Sean McCormack, said the decision against
public testimony was made at the recommendation of administration
lawyers who warned of separation-of-powers issues.
"Based on law and practice, White House staff members have not testified
before legislative bodies," Mr. McCormack said, "and this is
considered a legislative body."
The commission's statement suggested that the panel had received
promises of greater cooperation from former President Bill Clinton and
former Vice President Al Gore, who have agreed to meet in private with
all members. Ms. Rice's predecessor, Samuel R. Berger, is scheduled
to testify in public next month.
A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, would not offer details of the
White House's reasoning in trying to limit the meeting to Mr. Kean and
Mr. Hamilton, and Ms. Healy said she was unaware that the White House
had wanted to limit the president's interview to one hour.
"The president looks forward to meeting with the chairman and the vice
chairman to provide the information necessary for the commission to
complete its work," Ms. Healy said. "He's also confident that they'll
be able to share that information with the rest of the commission."
In interviews, Democratic members of the commission were openly critical
of the limits that the administration was trying to place on the
interviews and of Ms. Rice's decision not to testify in public.
"This is not acceptable," said Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor and a Democrat on the commission.
Mr. Ben-Veniste said the commission believed that Mr. Bush and Mr.
Cheney needed to meet with all 10 members and that it might consider a
subpoena for Ms. Rice if she refused to testify in public.
Republicans on the panel, including Mr. Kean, said that while the White
House should allow Ms. Rice to testify publicly and place fewer
restrictions on the interviews with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, that was
not meant to suggest criticism of the White House.
"We appreciate the president giving us the time and the vice president,
and we would respectfully suggest that all 10 commissioners should
participate," Mr. Kean said, adding that he was disappointed by Ms.
Rice's decision because "she was so very good in her private testimony
— she was articulate, candid, helpful."
He said he doubted that the panel would consider a subpoena.