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Rice: 'Nothing to hide' from 9/11 commission

Panel's chairman: White House should waive concerns

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• Gallery: Commission members
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September 11 attacks
Condoleezza Rice
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says that she "has nothing to hide" from the independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks, even as calls intensified for her to testify before the panel in public.

Appearing on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," Rice on Sunday night also denied the Bush administration put the war on terror on a "back burner" before the tragedy, as alleged by former White House aide Richard Clarke in a new book and in testimony before the 9/11 commission last week.

Clarke's interview on the program last week launched the current controversy.

Rice denied a claim by Clarke that President Bush tried to intimidate him on September 12 -- the day after the 9/11 attacks -- into finding a link between them and Iraq. While she disputed the tone of Bush's interest -- as described by Clarke -- she acknowledged that Bush wanted to know whether Iraq was "complicit" in the attacks.

"This was a country with which we'd been to war a couple of times," Rice said. "It was firing at our airplanes in the no-fly zone. It made perfectly good sense to ask about Iraq."

When asked whether she would have done anything differently about potential terrorism threats between Bush's inauguration in January 2001 and the attacks on New York and Washington nine months later, Rice said, "We were where we were. I know what we did.

"I know that shortly after we came into office I asked the counterterrorism team -- which we kept in place from the Clinton administration in order to provide continuity and experience -- we asked them what policy initiatives should we take."

She said Bush officials were given a list of policy initiatives, which they followed, and that they put in motion a strategy to eliminate al Qaeda.

The strategy was in place before the attacks, she said.

In his book, "Against All Enemies," Clarke says members of the Bush administration, including Rice, did not act on repeated warnings before September 11, 2001 that an al Qaeda attack could be imminent.

Clarke was White House counterterrorism coordinator in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

He repeated his criticism last week in testimony before the 9/11 commission, saying the administration considered terrorism an important issue, but not an "urgent" issue.

He also told the commission that Bush "has greatly undermined the war on terrorism" by ordering the invasion of Iraq.

White House officials tried to portray Clarke as a disgruntled former employee with a book to sell, releasing earlier statements and documents they say undercut his credibility.

Rice called Clarke's allegations "scurrilous" and made the rounds of news shows last week to challenge his credibility.

In his appearance before the 9/11 panel, Clarke also apologized to the families of 9/11 victims.

"Your government failed you," he said, "and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed you. And for that failure I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

Asked how the apology made her feel, Rice gave a softened response.

"I'm not going to question what Dick Clarke was or was not feeling."

"I think, from my point of view, the families need to know that everybody understands the deep loss," she said.

Panel's leaders urge Rice to testify

Earlier Sunday, the top two leaders of the bipartisan 9/11 panel, formally titled the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, urged Rice to appear before it to rebut Clarke's testimony.

Chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said White House concerns about executive privilege should be waived to help the commission get to the bottom of what led to the attacks.

"We recognize there are arguments having to do with separation of powers," Kean said on "Fox News Sunday." "We think in a tragedy of this magnitude that those kind of legal arguments are probably overridden."

The panel's vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that it would to be the administration's advantage to have Rice testify in public, "but they've refused to do that."

Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said Rice "has been very helpful to us" in private sessions.

"She's told us she's happy to have us come back, so we're going to get the information that we want in the commission," Hamilton said.

"But there's another whole dimension here, and that dimension is the public dimension -- and I think the American public would benefit from hearing Condi Rice testify under oath."

Sunday, Rice told "60 Minutes" that testifying in public was not possible, given her position. She has already given four hours of private testimony to the panel.

The White House argues that as a member of the White House staff, Rice should not be called to testify publicly under the principle of executive privilege.

"There's an important principle involved here. We have separate branches of government -- the legislative branch and the executive branch," Rice said.

"This commission, it takes its authority, derives its authority, from the Congress, and it is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.

"I'm more than happy to spend as much time as they would like answering further questions," Rice said.

Powell, Rumsfeld defend Rice

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday he would not have testified publicly when he was national security adviser under President Reagan in the late 1980s.

"The president has to have a unique and confidential and private relationship with his immediate staff," Powell said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to reporters Sunday, said Rice "would be a superb witness. She is anxious to testify. The president would dearly love to have her testify."

But the administration's lawyers have determined that her testifying "would leave the institution different than it was," he said.

Her testimony "would put an end to a lot of the controversy," Rumsfeld said.

Powell said he believes Rice "is getting a bit of a bum rap" because of Clarke's complaints.

"Condi was on this from the very beginning," Powell said. "Unfortunately, we never got the information or intelligence that we needed to tell us that these 19 guys were in the country and already there was a plot under way."

"We all knew it was a threat. We didn't need just Dick Clarke to tell us that terrorism was a threat," he said, noting that the USS Cole had been blown up in 2000 and two U.S. embassies were bombed in 1998.

Organizations representing families of those killed in the attacks have urged Rice to testify before the commission in a public setting.

The 9/11 Families Steering Committee issued such a statement Saturday.

"Dr. Rice should testify to set a moral precedent that is aptly warranted by the murder of 3,000 people," the statement said.

"Voluntarily coming forward to testify under oath during a public hearing without the use of a subpoena would simply set a rare, refreshing, and appropriate moral precedent for all of history to judge."

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