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Rice to take center stage before 9/11 commission

Bush anti-terrorism effort under scrutiny

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Stay with CNN-USA for ongoing coverage of reactions to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission -- and for updates from the campaign trail.
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CNN's John King on the high stakes for Condoleezza Rice -- and President Bush.

CNN's Bob Franken on Rice's appearance and efforts at damage control.

Richard Clarke says Bush erred in terrorism fight.
Political overtones as Rice goes before 9/11 panel
Interactive: Historical photo -- a chief of staff testifies

• Interactive: Poll: Clarke's impact
• Gallery: Key 9/11 testimony
• Gallery: Commission members
Condoleezza Rice
George W. Bush
Osama Bin Laden
September 11 attacks

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- National security adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies before the 9/11 commission Thursday morning to rebut charges that the Bush administration failed to recognize the emerging threat of terrorism and later flubbed its response.

Rice's testimony will be delivered under oath in a nationally televised public hearing.

Her appearance before the panel comes two weeks after former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, her one-time subordinate, testified the administration failed to heed his warnings about terrorist threats before the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Clarke also asserted that President Bush undermined the war on terrorism by invading Iraq -- instead of focusing on al Qaeda, the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

Those assertions have already been disputed by several administration figures, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

But Rice's testimony may offer the most detailed account yet of what the administration says it knew before the 9/11 attacks and how it chose to respond.

"I think it's good for the American public," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Wednesday. "I am very confident Dr. Rice will perform well. She's extremely intelligent. I admire her, and I think she will do very well, and it will be very helpful to this commission."

Bush, who along with Vice President Dick Cheney will meet in private with the commission at a later date, said earlier this week he expects Rice to be "great" as she addresses the panel.

"She is a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place and will lay out the facts," Bush said Monday. "That's what the commission's job is meant to do."

The testimony comes roughly seven months before a presidential election in which national security has emerged as a hotly contested issue.

Bush is casting himself as an uncompromising leader on national security, while Democrats charge his efforts have been misguided with mixed results.

To an extent, Rice has previewed her testimony, delivering numerous interviews after Clarke's appearance before the commission.

She denounced his allegations as "scurrilous" and maintained the administration was doing all it could to combat terrorism before 19 hijackers seized four U.S. commercial jets and used them as missiles against New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One jet crashed in western Pennsylvania. About 3,000 people died.

"The American people need to have an answer to the scurrilous allegation that somehow the president of the United States was not attentive to the terrorist threat," Rice said.

Rice's high-profile role in rebutting Clarke's charges increased the pressure on her to testify publicly before the 10-member bipartisan panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

The White House initially resisted calls for Rice's public testimony, arguing it would be a violation of executive privilege.

But the commission, Democrats, some family members of 9/11 victims and even some Republicans called on the White House to reverse its position.

"I think the American people want to have confidence in this administration's national security plans," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. "And this is the only way to do it."

Several of Clarke's assertions contradicted previous statements by Rice and other administration figures about what they knew or did before 9/11.

For example, Clarke testified he gave Rice a "checklist" before 9/11, urging her to "go on the offensive."

But Rice has suggested Clarke was the one who did not provide the information, pointing to one pre-9/11 memo that she said did not include recommendations on what to do about the possibility of al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States.

Rice's previous statements and position papers are likely to be questioned closely by commission members.

A speech on national security that Rice was to deliver on the day of the attacks has generated considerable interest.

The contents of the speech -- first reported by The Washington Post -- make no mention of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Administration sources confirmed the excepts but refused to release a copy of the speech. They said it did not reflect all of what was going on behind the scenes to combat terrorism.

Questions about Iraq are likely. Bush has cast the war in Iraq as a key component of the war on terror. Clarke charged that Bush was focused on Iraq even before 9/11 and then sought to link former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to those attacks.

Rice has said it made sense to look at Iraq as possibly involved, given past hostilities with the country, but she said Bush never tried to intimidate anyone into making a connection.

Rice, 49, one of Bush's closest confidants, is due to begin her testimony at 9 a.m. Thursday and scheduled to conclude by 11:30 a.m. The hearing will take place in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Congress created the commission -- initially opposed by the Bush administration -- in November 2002 and charged it with coming up with an authoritative account of the 9/11 attacks, including any security and intelligence lapses.

The commission is also required to issue recommendations on how to protect against any future attacks.

The commission's report is due by July 26, but it may not be released at that time, subject first to a security review by the White House.

Written by CNN's Sean Loughlin with reporting by CNN's Bob Franken, David Ensor, John King, Suzanne Malveaux, Jeanne Meserve, Pam Benson and Phil Hirschkorn.

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