(Washington D.C.) - The White House was back-tracking today as it tried desperately to stem the threatening tide of claims from former counter terrorism chief Richard Clarke. Senior officials conceded for the first time that on the day after the September 11 attacks President Bush pressed Mr Clarke to re-examine whether Iraq was involved.
Last week Mr Bush's spokesman said the President "cannot recall" the conversation. Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser, tacitly acknowledged that her refusal to give evidence to a 9/11 commission in public and under oath was in danger of becoming a PR disaster.
To try to address the concerns of bereaved 9/11 families, who have criticised her stance, Ms Rice said she wanted to meet relatives so they could quiz her directly. White House officials are also exploring ways in which Ms Rice's previous four hours' of private evidence to the commission can be declassified and made public.
But Ms Rice continued to cite executive privilege in saying that while she would be happy to spend "as much time as they would like" answering the commission's questions, such a meeting had to be in private. The concessions came as the blizzard of media coverage surrounding Mr Clarke's claims continued unabated into a second week.
In his book, published last week, and giving evidence to the 9/11 panel, Mr Clarke has criticised Mr Bush for failing to heed warnings about al-Qaeda before the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, and of weakening the war on terror by pursuing a wrong-headed war in Iraq.
Ms Rice, Mr Bush's closest aide, is at the eye of the storm because of her refusal to testify, and because the substance of Mr Clarke's claims are directed at her territory, national security. After she appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday night, Ms Rice and other White House officials intended to withdraw from the airwaves in an effort to deny Mr Clarke's claims further oxygen.
Mr Bush's approval ratings for his handling of the war on terror have fallen from 65 per cent to to 57 per cent in the past month. But his overall approval ratings have remained steady at 49 per cent.