WASHINGTON - President Bush reversed course under heavy pressure on Tuesday and agreed to let his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, give sworn public testimony before the September 11 commission.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also agreed to meet together with the full panel in private, abandoning their earlier insistence that they would meet only with the commission's chairman and vice chairman.

The dramatic about-face came in a letter to the bipartisan panel that said Rice would appear in public if it was agreed it would not set a precedent under the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers.

The 10-member commission insisted on public testimony from Rice after former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke's bombshell allegations last week that the Bush White House ignored an urgent al Qaeda threat before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and focused on Iraq as a likely culprit afterward.

Until the announcement, administration officials were talking about a possible compromise in which the White House would have Rice meet privately with the panel and then release her unsworn remarks.

"The president recognises the truly unique and extraordinary circumstances underlying the commission's responsibility to prepare a detailed report on the facts and circumstances of the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001," the president's legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, wrote to the commission chairman, Republican Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton.

The commission quickly agreed to the White House demands, including that it not seek additional public testimony from any White House official. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, US House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, gave similar assurances.

"In the end, I suspect that president and the White House understood it was very important for the public as well as for the commission's work," said Kean, who told reporters that agreement came late on Monday after days of extensive talks.

Kean and Hamilton also said the White House asked that Bush and Cheney appear at the same time in exchange for agreeing that they would meet with the full commission.

"The basic bottom line for us is always the report -- is what we're doing going to get us the answers to the questions we need to write the best possible report. And I think we came to the conclusion that this will," Kean said.

Both sides promised the sessions would be held soon.

The move was a stunning about face for the White House, which after initially resisting creation of the commission, had adamantly refused to allow Rice to testify in public and said Bush would speak only to Kean and Hamilton instead of all 10 members -- five Republicans and five Democrats.

Bush came under increasing pressure after Clarke told the commission last week, under oath, that the Bush administration was slow to respond to the threat from al Qaeda, which is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The allegations from Clarke, who served four US presidents, challenged Bush's image as a strong leader on homeland security and the US war on terrorism, which the president has been showcasing in his re-election campaign.

The latest USAToday/CNN/Gallup Poll showed that most Americans -- 58 per cent -- still approve of Bush's handling of the terrorism threat. His overall job approval rating advanced to 53 per cent, up 4 percentage points since early March.

Rice, who was at the forefront of a furious public White House counterattack against Clarke last week, met privately for four hours in February with the panel but was not under oath.

Although she asked to return before the commission to rebut Clarke's allegations, the White House refused to let her testify publicly citing a long-standing position that presidential advisers who have not been confirmed by the US Senate cannot give public testimony.

Kean and Hamilton outlined a range of topics for Rice to address, from the transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration to Clarke's assertions and the events on the day of the attacks.

Frist, who has charged that Clarke's commission testimony conflicted with remarks he made to a congressional panel in 2002, predicted Rice would provide "very powerful testimony ... that will set the record straight."

The top Senate Democrat, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, said, "I don't think, in this case, they had any choice but to do what the American people are clamoring for."

Rice had also faced the demand for public testimony from Democrats, who suggested the White House refusal meant the administration had something to hide.

Democrats decried the assault on Clarke's credibility that sought to cast the longtime staff member as a disgruntled employee seeking to undermine Bush political reasons.

"We now all wait with baited breath to hear what Condoleezza Rice will testify to under oath," said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.


Herald Feature: September 11

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