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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

Ashcroft gets turn before 9/11 panel

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit


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ON CNN TV
Stay with CNN for ongoing reports on reaction to President Bush's news conference -- and for updates on the testimony scheduled by the 9/11 commission for Wednesday's sessions in Washington, featuring CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
PLANNED 9/11 TESTIMONY

Today:

  • Louis Freeh, 9:30 a.m. ET
  • Janet Reno, 11 a.m. ET
  • Thomas Pickard, J. Cofer Black, 2 p.m. ET
  • John Ashcroft, 3:30 p.m. ET

    Wednesday, April 14:

  • George Tenet, 9:30 a.m. ET
  • Robert Mueller, 2:30 p.m. ET

    Watch CNN-USA for live coverage of these testimony sessions and ongoing analysis and updates on their impact.
  • more videoVIDEO
    CNN's David Ensor on this week's 9/11 commission testimony.

    CNN's Bill Schneider names the 911 panel vs. Bush his Play of the Week.

    CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on the White House memo.
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    George W. Bush
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    WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush holds a prime-time news conference Tuesday night, his first this year and his third since moving into the White House. His East Room appearance, scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. ET, comes after testimony earlier by John Ashcroft and Janet Reno, two of the most polarizing figures in American politics, before the 9/11 commission.

    It is anyone's guess who'll make the biggest news.

    But as Sen. John Kerry avoids discussing the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing for Bush on al Qaeda during a weeklong college tour/rock concert, we assume it won't be him. Bowing to heightened media demand to weigh in on Iraq, however, Kerry penned an op-ed Tuesday in The Washington Post in which, among other things, he calls for more U.S. troops, if requested, and for the United Nations to assume a greater role in creating an interim Iraqi government.

    The commission hearings get under way at 9 a.m. ET Tuesday in the Hart Senate Office Building. (Watch CNN for live coverage and analysis of these testimony sessions.) Unfortunately, appearances by Reno at 11 a.m. and Ashcroft at 3:30 p.m. are separated by other testimony, so we hold little hope for a clip-and-save photo-op of the torch-passing handshake. Too bad, it would have been priceless.

    Ashcroft will find himself in the unusual position of rebutting accusations that his pre-9/11 anti-terrorist efforts were too lax. (Indeed, few have argued that has been the case since the attacks.)

    Requesting anonymity, one 9/11 commissioner said Thomas Pickard, the acting FBI director in summer 2001, previously told the panel that Ashcroft had shown little interest in counterterrorism before the attacks. Pickard also is scheduled to testify Tuesday.

    The day before the 9/11 attacks, Ashcroft refused a $50 million request that would have allowed the FBI to hire more counterterrorism agents and intelligence researchers, according to The Washington Post, citing witnesses and Justice Department documents.

    Ashcroft, who has made only one public appearance since returning to work from surgery last month, is likely to point to his May 2001 Senate testimony in which he endorsed additional money for counterterrorism efforts and said, "Our No. 1 goal is the prevention of terrorist acts."

    Refuting assertions that Ashcroft showed little interest in FBI counterterrorism efforts before 9/11, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Monday, "The attorney general received FBI briefings and challenged the FBI to do everything possible to confront the threat. He repeatedly asked them, 'What are you doing? What more can we do?' "

    Ashcroft and Reno headline a day of blockbuster testimony before the commission, which is also scheduled to hear from Pickard and former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

    "We're going to have a plethora of questions for the FBI and for Justice," commissioner Tim Roemer told the Post. "And I'm not sure they are going to have any good answers to those questions."

    For his part, Freeh laid out his defense in a Monday op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he faulted political leaders for not declaring war on al Qaeda before the attacks. "Short of total war, the FBI relentlessly did its job of pursuing terrorists, always with the goal of preventing their attacks," Freeh wrote.

    Flip-flop in Colorado Senate race

    And now for something completely different, the Grind turns to Colorado, specifically the GOP Senate primary, where Gov. Bill Owens continues his shockingly clumsy handling of his party. In the latest chapter, Owens announced Monday that he was pulling his support for Rep. Bob Schaffer and throwing it behind beer executive Peter Coors.

    Coors officially will announce his candidacy Tuesday in Denver. A spokesman said Owens plans to attend Coors' kickoff event.

    Schaffer said he spoke with Owens on Monday. "He said he was sorry, and I told him I forgive him," the congressman said. "It's certainly disappointing when anyone in politics has to go back on their commitments. ... Is it a surprise? No."

    The GOP nominee will face a tough race this fall against state Attorney General Ken Salazar, who has little competition in the Democratic primary.

    CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.


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