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White House backs 9/11 commission's plea for more time

Rice interview set for Saturday

By Dana Bash and Jennifer Yuille
CNN Washington Bureau

The White House threw its support Wednesday behind an extended schedule from the 9/11 commission.
The White House threw its support Wednesday behind an extended schedule from the 9/11 commission.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After resisting the idea for months, the White House announced Wednesday its support for a request from the commission investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks for more time to complete its work.

Meanwhile, commission sources told CNN that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will be interviewed Saturday, and negotiations have begun for private interviews with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

The 10-person commission had been required by law to produce a final report by May 27 on what the government knew or didn't know -- and why -- about the plots to carry out the terrorist attacks. The commission wants an extra 60 days to complete its work.

"We are pleased to support their request for an extension and look forward to receiving their information," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

After weeks of internal debate, the commission's Republican chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and Democratic vice chairman Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman from Indiana, announced last Tuesday they would ask the White House and Congress to extend the deadline by two months, until July 27.

They said that was the amount of time the staff said they needed to complete their investigation, hold public hearings and produce a report.

Bush officials had publicly said they wanted the commission to complete its work as quickly as possible.

Privately, sources said they were concerned about a report that could have some damaging information about the White House coming out just four months before Election Day.

Backed by families of September 11 victims, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, original sponsors of an independent 9/11 commission, introduced legislation this week to extend the life of the panel until January 2005.

An aide to McCain told CNN the senators are inclined to push for a longer extension, but will confer with the families in the next few days about the best way to move forward.

"We would prefer to move the commission's life beyond the election so it would be removed from the taint of partisan politics," said the McCain aide.

Hamilton, told CNN last week he opposed the idea of a longer extension because of the danger, even probability, things could leak and information could get distorted.

"The disadvantage is that you have a report that might dribble out, and you don't know what parts will dribble out, and you can get a very distorted view of what the commission actually decided," said Hamilton.

Sources said that was a key concern of the White House as well.

The commission has interviewed nearly 1,000 people, collected some 2 million pages of documents and held seven public hearings.

One commission source said they have "worked their way up" through the government and have already talked to several current and former Cabinet officials

Rice will become the highest-ranking official in the White House to be interviewed so far, they said. Her deputy, Steven Hadley, is scheduled to be interviewed in the coming weeks.

There was no word on when interviews for Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Gore would be scheduled. Commission sources said discussions are under way.

One commission source added, however, it is doubtful that the four men would appear in any of the public hearings.

The next round of public hearings, likely to be held in March, will have "recognizable" witnesses from both the Bush and Clinton administrations, sources said.

Some of the commission's work was delayed because of prolonged negotiations with the administration over access to documents and other key information, such as Bush's daily intelligence briefings.

They also got a late start because the original chairman, Henry Kissinger, and vice chairman, George Mitchell, bowed out.


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