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Rice seeks another private meeting with commission

Bush insists he would have stopped 9/11 attacks if possible


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House has told the independent panel investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001, that Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, wants another private meeting with the commission.

The panel held two days of public hearings this week.

Rice did not testify at those sessions, but she has met privately with the commission before. ( Gallery: Key testimony)

Thursday evening, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales asked members of the commission to hold another private meeting with Rice.

The request came in a letter to the commission's co-chairmen, stating that "in light of yesterday's hearings in which there were a number of mischaracterizations of Dr. Rice's statements and positions," Rice wanted to correct them.

Former Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, testified Wednesday that Bush did not see the threat from the terrorist network al Qaeda as "urgent" before September 11, 2001 -- contrasting the current administration unfavorably with the Clinton White House, in which he also served. (Clarke testifies before the commission)

Rice has called Clarke's assertions "scurrilous" and has said that administration records refute Clarke's allegations.(Full story)

Clarke's allegations -- including his assertion that Bush sought to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks at the expense of undermining al Qaeda -- have also been denounced by several other administration figures, and were challenged by Republican members of the 9/11 panel. (Gallery: Commission members)

Bush's defense

In the wake of the week's public hearings, President Bush insisted Thursday that he would have used "every resource, every asset, every power of this government" to avert the attacks, had he known they were coming.

Speaking in Nashua, New Hampshire, Bush diverted from his planned remarks on the economy to respond to assertions that his administration may not have done all it could to prevent the attacks.

In doing so, he made a point of noting his administration's relative short tenure before it was faced with the devastating attacks.

"There is a commission going on in Washington D.C.," Bush said. "It is a very important commission determined to look at the eight months of my administration and the eight years of the previous administration to determine what we can learn, what we can do to make sure we uphold our solemn duty.

"Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to strike America, to attack us, I would have used every resource, every asset, every power of this government to protect the American people."

Family pressure on Rice

Rice faced some new pressure Thursday to testify publicly.

"The American public deserves to see in public under oath what she knew ahead of time," said Carrie Lemack, vice president of the Families of September 11 group.

Lemack's mother, Judy Larocque, was a flight attendant on one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center in New York City.

Rice has spent several hours with the commission in private, but the White House has maintained that a member of the president's staff can't appear before a congressionally chartered commission without violating the Constitution's separation of powers.

"I've heard Dr. Rice say that she has evidence that what he said was wrong," said Lemack, referring to Rice's comments about Clarke.

"I implore her to come forward and speak in front of the commission and American public -- under oath, in public -- and let us know what that evidence is."

story.lemack.jpg
Carrie Lemack, vice president of Families of September 11, speaks Thursday about the hearings.

Lemack praised Clarke for appearing before the bipartisan panel, formally known at the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. During his two-and-a-half hours before the commission, he told families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the 2001 attacks that the government and he had "failed" them, and he apologized.

Clarke told the commission that the Bush administration considered terrorism an important -- but not urgent -- issue before the September 11 attacks.

Clarke's assertions are in his book, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," which was released this week.

They have been challenged vigorously by the White House. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, told the commission that Bush recognized terrorism as a key priority even before he took office.

But on CNN's "Larry King Live" Wednesday, Clarke said the Clinton administration's approach to a similar threat before the turn of the millennium -- top officials held daily interagency meetings and actively sought information from within their agencies -- shows that a similar approach might have worked to prevent the attacks.(Full story)

The 9/11 commission is charged with coming up with an authoritative account of events leading to the attacks, including any security and intelligence lapses. It will also draft recommendations on how to prevent future attacks.

Lemack said the two days of hearings held this week were difficult and frustrating for most of those who lost relatives in the attacks.

"We've seen this back and forth about who is at fault. For us, we don't want to make it partisan," she said. "We just want to make sure that whatever did happen -- whatever the information they had before 9/11 to prevent it -- gets out there."

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- who also testified before the panel -- said Thursday he hoped the commission could come up with recommendations on how to accelerate the confirmation process for people in key positions in national security.

Support, criticism for Clarke

A Republican congressman joined in the criticism of Clarke Thursday, saying that Clarke failed to respond to calls from his subcommittee for an assessment of the terrorist threat facing the United States in 2000.

"If we had reorganized our government after having an assessment of the threat and then developing a strategy, I think we would have known about September 11," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Connecticut.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, called on the White House to stop what he called the "character assassination" of Clarke.

"I have a simple request for the president today: Please ask the people around you to stop the character attack they're waging against Richard Clarke," Daschle said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Ask them to stop their attempts to conceal information and confuse facts."

Meanwhile, a Democratic U.S. senator who has often parted ways with his party, said this week's 9/11 hearings "could do great damage to this country."

"I think our enemies, our terrorist enemies, look at what is happening here and they see all this bickering, all this divisiveness," Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat who has endorsed Bush for re-election, told CNN. "They see this disunity, and they will interpret it as weakness and instability and encourage them."


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