WASHINGTON - Condoleezza Rice will present an unapologetic defence of President Bush before the 9-11 commission today in the highest profile national security testimony since the Iran-Contra affair nearly two decades ago, officials and analysts said.
All three major US television networks planned the unusual step of pre-empting daytime programming to broadcast the national security adviser's sworn public testimony on how the Bush White House weighed the threat of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The moment could hardly be more dramatic: right in the midst of a bitterly contested presidential campaign in which some of Bush's critics are beginning to draw parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, and with headlines suddenly dominated by an upsurge of bloody anti-American violence in Iraq.
Rice's 2-1/2 hours in the spotlight responds to damaging testimony by former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, who told the panel Bush ignored warnings about al Qaeda before the attacks and focused mistakenly on Iraq afterward.
"She will make a very strong case that all of us probably did not appreciate the threat was as serious as it was but it certainly was high on the administration's agenda," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Senior Bush administration officials said Rice would not rebut Clarke point-by-point in her sweeping review, however.
They also said they expected her to sympathise with 9/11 victims but stop short of emulating the widely publicised apology Clarke offered, at the outset of his own testimony two weeks ago, for government failings leading up to the attacks that killed about 3,000 people.
"The people that ought to apologise for that are the people who attacked us," said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Republicans with ties to the White House believe Rice's appearance will quell the controversy that has threatened Bush's campaign image as an effective leader in the US war on terrorism.
Some see it as a possible audition for a possible Cabinet level job for Rice, given Secretary of State Colin Powell's anticipated departure from a second Bush administration.
The stakes are high for Bush, who had opposed creation of the commission and resisted calls for public testimony by Rice until public and political pressures grew too strong.
"This is not what the White House expected the American public to be concentrating on in an election year," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The charged political atmosphere overhanging Rice's appearance has also spawned concern that the commission of five Democrats and five Republicans could see their proceedings give way to election year partisanship.
Blanton, whose research archive closely monitors national security issues, said live TV coverage would make Rice's testimony the most widely publicised national security hearing since the Iran-Contra congressional probe in 1987.
That televised investigation, near the end of President Ronald Reagan's second term, probed the covert efforts of that administration to sell arms to Iran and divert the proceeds to "contra" rebels in Nicaragua in violation of US law.
NBC said the last time it aired daytime gavel-to-gavel coverage of a live address was in February 2003, when Powell spoke before the United Nations about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction threat.
Just before Rice's testimony, the anti-Bush political group MoveOn.org planned to air a TV ad on CNN accusing the president of exploiting the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq.
A senior administration official said Rice would offer an overview of differing national "paradigms" before and after the attacks on New York and Washington.
"She could clear the air just by recognising that for the Bush administration, terrorism was one of a number of important problems but not the overriding problem," said University of Maryland professor Mac Destler.
Clarke, who served under four presidents including in the preceding Clinton administration, told the 9/11 panel that Bush undermined the war on terror by invading Iraq, which Clarke and other analysts insist had no 9/11 role.
Others share the same concern.
"I worry that with so much of our troops, high level resources, development and other assistance dollars wrapped up in Iraq, that we have taken our eye off many other balls out there," said Susan Rice, who served as assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
"That includes Afghanistan, many other parts of the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, even perhaps Latin America, where al Qaeda has a foothold."