Rice to testify on Thursday
By Joseph Curl and James G. Lakely       April 2, 2004

   The White House scheduled Thursday as the day for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify under oath publicly before the September 11 commission.

    In her testimony, Miss Rice will dispute statements by former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke that President Bush ignored the al Qaeda threat before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center that killed about 3,000 people.

    Miss Rice will testify for two to three hours and is expected to lay out a detailed account of the counterterrorism policy in the Bush administration.  In addition, she is expected to spell out exactly what officials from the departing Clinton administration told Bush officials about al Qaeda and how the incoming administration addressed those concerns.

    "Miss Rice looks forward to testifying and answering the commissioners' questions," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.

    Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who is chairman of the commission, said he looks forward to hearing "what substantive differences there are, perhaps, in testimony between Dr. Rice and any other witnesses."

    After expressing concerns that allowing Miss Rice to testify would set a precedent that would impair the president's ability to receive confidential advice from close personal staff, Mr. Bush decided to allow her to appear before the panel.

    The White House yesterday defended its counterterrorism plan, saying that Mr. Bush was fully aware of the threat posed by al Qaeda.

    "The plan to eliminate al Qaeda was something the president directed this administration to pursue when we came into office," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.  "Remember, this is the president who said, 'I'm tired of swatting at flies.'  And he directed the administration to pursue a comprehensive plan to eliminate al Qaeda."

    The spokesman said the Bush administration "certainly continued some of the policies that were already in place when it came to terrorism -- immediately upon coming into office."

    The September 11 commission, envisioned as a nonpartisan search for answers "and not necessarily blame" entered the political arena last week with the testimony of Mr. Clarke, who served as a terrorism specialist for both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

    The testimony of Mr. Clarke, who says the Bush administration failed to heed his warnings about the threat of al Qaeda before September 11, 2001, and wasted resources deposing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, stands in stark contrast to the version of events put forth by Miss Rice.

    Miss Rice has said repeatedly that the White House was not satisfied with the Clinton administration's policy of containing al Qaeda but began within days of taking office crafting a strategy to "eliminate al Qaeda."

    Her testimony before the commission on Thursday is sure to produce high political drama, as it will be the last public word of a high-ranking Bush administration official to fight off doubts about the defining moment of Mr. Bush's presidency.

    Mr. Clarke, who released a critical book about his days as one of Mr. Bush's top terrorism advisers to coincide with his testimony, contends that Miss Rice barely heard of al Qaeda before she was briefed by him.

    Miss Rice has denounced that characterization, a point bolstered by interviews she granted reporters before Mr. Bush took office in January 2001 in which she discussed the threat of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization.

    Mr. Clarke testified to the committee that even if the Bush administration followed all of his policy suggestions, it would not have stopped the attacks of September 11.

    However, on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Mr. Clarke suggested it could have been prevented, saying he warned the White House that al Qaeda was a threat to hijack planes and regretted that airlines were taken off high alert in mid-August. 

    Staying on high alert would have been a "prudential thing to do knowing that some unknown attack was coming," Mr. Clarke said.