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9.11 investigation

Bush 9/11 Testimony Limited To One Hour

"This is not acceptable," said Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor and a Democrat on the commission.
February 26, 2004
Bush to Limit Testimony Before 9/11 Panel

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.

The commission, 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.


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