KANSAS CITY - Prospective Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry challenged key White House adviser Condoleezza Rice on Saturday to testify publicly and under oath before a commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Kerry accused President Bush's White House of stonewalling the commission by keeping Rice off its public witness list, and of attempting "character assassination" against its own former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke.
Clarke has sparked a political firestorm for Bush by questioning -- most recently in televised testimony before the 9/11 commission -- his commitment to fighting terror before hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed more than 3,000 people.
Rice, Bush's national security adviser and once Clarke's White House superior, has led furious administration denials of the charges in various televised appearances and wants to appear before the investigative commission in private session.
Kerry, the Massachusetts senator cruising toward his party's White House nomination this summer, joined a chorus of Democrats arguing that that is not good enough.
"We're talking about the security of our country ... and the answer is, profoundly, yes, she should (testify)," he told reporters during a campaign stop in Kansas City.
Noting that Rice planned an appearance Sunday night on CBS' "60 Minutes" program, the same forum Clarke used to attack Bush last weekend, Kerry added:
"If Condoleezza Rice can find time to do '60 Minutes' on television before the American people, she ought to find 60 minutes to speak to the commission under oath," Kerry said.
He said Franklin Roosevelt had had no problem cooperating with an investigation of America's unpreparedness for Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II, and added:
"This administration has done the opposite -- stonewalled this commission."
Rice has already met privately with the 9/11 commission for four hours. But the White House insists -- as it has done traditionally -- that public, sworn testimony would set a bad precedent for future national security advisers.
It has exercised "executive privilege" under which presidentially appointed "advisers" cannot be compelled to testify before Congress.
Still, the Bush camp is well aware the issue is politically explosive for a president running heavily on a claim to strong wartime leadership, and it responded quickly to Kerry's jibe.
"John Kerry's attack on Dr. Rice today is part of the Democrats' strategy to politicise the work of the 9/11 commission," Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish said. "John Kerry seeks to distract Americans from his own failed ideas for protecting America from future attacks."
In his own testimony before the panel this week, in television interviews and in a book, "Against All Enemies," Clarke accused the Bush White House of making the fight against terrorism a lesser priority than the previous Clinton administration -- in which he also worked -- did.
The White House and Bush's congressional supporters have launched fierce counterattacks, questioning Clarke's competence to make such judgments, his motives and his credibility.
Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, suggested Friday that Clarke had praised Bush's dedication to counter-terror efforts in closed-door Senate testimony in 2002. Frist urged that the testimony be declassified and publicised, a highly unusual step.