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Chairman, Vice Chairman of 9/11 Commission Discuss Rice Deal

Aired March 30, 2004 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rica says she has nothing to hide. Now she'll get a chance to prove it.
The administration today reverse course and says it would let Rice testify under oath and in public before the panel investigating the September 11 attacks.

We are waiting to hear from the commission any minute now. First go to White House correspondent Dana Bash live from the White House -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kyra. And this has certainly been a couple of days really that came to a climax yesterday of mounting political pressure on this White House to reverse course. Exactly what they did today. And let Condoleezza Rice testify publicly.

This came in the form of a letter Alberto Gonzales -- I think we are seeing a press conference. We're seeing a press conference from the commission. We'll go to that in a second.

But basically what they decided to do is allow Condoleezza Rice to testify in public under a couple of conditions. The first condition is that they are not going to have anybody else testify from the White House.

Here we go. Here's Tom Kean, the chair of the 9/11 Commission. Let's listen.

THOMAS H. KEAN, 9/11 COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: ... the vice president to meet in one joint private session and to include all 10 commissioners. We also commend the president for his decision to accept the commission's request for public testimony under oath by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, Dr. Condoleezza Rice.

We look forward to the commission's meeting with the president and the vice president and the public testimony of Dr. Rice. We are going to be in the process the next few days of trying to schedule those sessions with the White House, and we're going to try to do that promptly.

With that, I think Commissioner Hamilton and I are delighted to answer any questions that we can answer. QUESTION: How likely is it do you think you're going to get testimony from Dr. Rice that's not encumbered or tainted by politics, given the environment that has been created by Mr. Clarke and the response from the White House?

KEAN: Well, my hope is that the kind of inquiries we've held in private, that kind of testimony will be replicated in public. We got some very good testimony from Dr. Rice in private session. It was candid. It was factual. It was to the point of the questions that were asked. She stayed with the commission as long as we needed her.

My hope is that she will replicate that testimony in public as well. The question is, where there are differences. And we've got to explore those differences, and if we find actual differences between the witnesses, we probably will. And the commission is going to have to sort that out in our report.

LEE H. HAMILTON, 9/11 COMMISSION VICE CHAIR: I think the thing that gave the political edge to the hearings last week was the publication, of course, of the Clarke book. We'll not have that in the future. So we expect that Dr. Rice, who gave us very good testimony in the private meeting, will do that in public as well.

And I think Tom and I have the job of trying to take the partisan edge off of these hearings. And you do that by focusing on the facts, by pushing for specifics, and then seeing how broad a consensus we can build.

QUESTION: Some of the families have questioned your acceptance of this condition by the White House that there not be further public testimony by any White House officials and have said that this might not allow you to go where all the facts lead. Could you address why you accepted this condition?

KEAN: Yes, we had no plans in public here to invite any member of the White House staff. So this was not a condition we had any problem with. We meet extensively with members of the White House staff and others in private session. We get all the information they have to offer.

Our policy in private sessions is that if there are any conflicts, we then place the conflicting witnesses under oath.

So we will get all the information necessary to do our report. This was not something we planned to do anyway. We have extensive witnesses scheduled for the remaining public hearings, but none of them were members of the White House staff.

HAMILTON: I want to be very clear that we're not, under the terms of the agreement reached with the White House. We're not precluded from private sessions with White House officials. We are precluded only from public sessions with White House officials.

QUESTION: Could you walk us through the negotiations with the White House that eventually led to this deal? When did you start talking to them? What were some of the options that were on the table, and how important was it that you manage to make sure that Ms. Rice this time is going to be under oath?

KEAN: Well these were extensive talks. You know, we've had a very good relationship with Judge Gonzales at the White House, and he has been our main contact. And we've been talking to him on a consistent basis not only about these issues, but a number of other issues where we had other conflicts or potential conflicts or procedural problems or what have you. So this was a continuing conversation.

And as far as Dr. Rice particularly, we've been talking about that for...

HAMILTON: Months.

KEAN: Yes. A long time. It's not anything recent.

QUESTION: I understand you've been talking about it for months, but the decision came out today, the letter came out today. What happened in the last, you know, 72 or so hours that changed things? And how many times were you on the phone with the White House? That kind of stuff.

KEAN: Well, between the two of us, we've been on the phone a lot over the past three or four days, separately and together. And I think it was, as all things are, a negotiation.

But I think that in the end I suspect that the president and the White House understood that it was very important for the public as well as for the commission's work that Dr. Rice be allowed to testify in public.

And we recognize the important constitutional principle that the president was talking about in the White House.

KEAN: And we support that principle of presidential privilege very strongly as commissioners. But we also recognize the fact that this is an extraordinary event in human history -- I'm a presidential appointee, not a Congressional appointee -- that there are all sorts of reasons why this is different.

And our argument all along to the White House is this did not set a precedent. And one of the important conditions under which the White House made this agreement is that we all agree that it sets no precedent.

HAMILTON: I think one comment that might be helpful to you is that these issues do not appear in isolation with one another. We've been talking with the White House over a period of months now with regard to a lot of different issues. And they include, of course, access to a number of different kinds of documents, especially the so- called presidential daily briefings. But they've included many other questions of access to documents and people.

The question of whether or not Dr. Rice would testify in public is only one of really many issues that we've talked with the White House about. And I think Tom and I have always felt that it's a package, not a single issue that has to be dealt with.

QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about how long you think she might testify? Would it be as long as she testified in private or not? And what are maybe some of the key questions that you all would like her to answer under oath in a public setting?

KEAN: We haven't set any kind of time frames as yet.

Dr. Rice has always said to us that she'd make herself available to answer any questions we had. And I presume that's probably the same in public as it would be in private. But we want to talk about the transition, the handoff from Mr. Berger to Mrs. Rice. We want to hear from Dr. Rice about the development of policy in the first eight months of the Bush administration to the kind of threats and dangers that were apparent to her before 9/11.

We want to talk about the day of and the immediate response of the White House. We want to understand what substantive differences there are, perhaps in testimony between Dr. Rice and any other witnesses. We want to understand the nature of the decision-making at the highest levels of government.

KEAN: And how is that war on terrorism, for instance, being managed today? That's the kind of things we want to get out of the testimony.

QUESTION: Can you say why you would agree to have the vice president and the president testify at the same time? To someone else, it might be to allow, you know, Mr. Cheney to help Mr. Bush with the answers.

And I'm just confused why you would allow them to go together. It seems like it compromises your investigation to have them answer questions at the same time.

KEAN: Well, we recognize that Mr. Bush may help Mr. Cheney with some of the answers.

(LAUGHTER)

But it was the suggestion of the White House. And it seemed to us an exchange for getting all 10 commissioners to be able to ask any questions they wanted to to a member of a staff as well, that we'd get the answers to the questions we needed to write the report.

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.

HAMILTON: We did. The tradeoff off of course was, we were going to meet with the president, only the two of us, the chairman and the vice chairman. And the other commissioners very much wanted to be a part of the conversations with the president and the vice president.

We recognize that all commissioners are equal in this endeavor. And so it was very important to us that all 10 commissioners be present.

As the governor has mentioned, we believe that we will be able to fulfill our mandate, which is to give a complete and full accounting of events under this format in talking to both the president and the vice president.

So we think in every way that it's satisfactory.

QUESTION: So you're saying you did not want it to be structured this way and agreed to it only because that's the only condition the White House will allow if you have all 10 commissioners in the room.

HAMILTON: I don't know that I agree quite with your quid pro quo analysis of it. But for us, the 10 commissioners were the key point, and the fact that we think we can get the information we need with the vice president and the president in the room.

KEAN: This was never a source of contention, that particular provision.

QUESTION: Two questions: Are there any outstanding problems that you still had with the White House? Or does the agreement today clear it up? And, secondly, do you think the commission now needs to, in light of what Mr. Clarke testified to, delve more deeply into whether Iraq was a distraction from the overall war on terrorism?

HAMILTON: On the first question, I don't think we see any major remaining issues between ourselves and the White House. We think this agreement wraps up certainly the major issues. Clearly, there are questions of scheduling and the timing of the appearances that we have to work out with the White House.

On the second point, Richard Clarke really made two points -- principal points. One was that we're fighting the wrong war. That's the point you raise. That is not in the mandate of the commission. That's a very important foreign policy question, but it's really not in our responsibility.

The second point that he made, which was that the Bush administration did not give priority, or urgent priority, to counterterrorism, that very much is in the mandate of the commission and will be one of our principal findings.

QUESTION: Just to be clear, when the president and vice president meet with the full commission, they will or will not be under oath when they answer your questions?

HAMILTON: They will not.

KEAN: Not be under oath, no.

QUESTION: Just to follow-up, does that -- you've said that anybody who appears before the commission, at least in public, would appear under oath.

QUESTION: Is that consistent? Do you see a problem with that? Would you prefer them under oath?

KEAN: No, it's not inconsistent, because what we have said to all of our witnesses who have been -- there now are 1,000 of them who have given testimony in private -- that the only time we ever requested oaths is when there's been a real difference and real inconsistencies with what one witness says and another witness says. That's one area.

The other area is -- I'm not an historian. But I don't think presidents -- one, it's very unusual for presidents to appear before a commission. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, refused to appear before the Warren Commission. He sent a written statement. He said presidents don't do that.

So the fact that he's appearing and answering questions, we are very grateful of that. And obviously we will be able to ask him some questions, without the answers, we wouldn't be able to do the job in the report that we want to do.

QUESTION: Two questions about this agreement. Number one, when did it actually fall into place, was it today, yesterday, whatever? And, secondly, did at any time did you have to suggest that you might be prepared to subpoena Dr. Rice?

KEAN: It fell into place last night. There are pieces of it that fell into place earlier, but the full agreement fell into place last night. And we have never threatened a subpoena.

QUESTION: I want to return to the purpose of having Dr. Rice return before the commission. Governor Kean, you used the word "factual" to describe her testimony in private. Is the accuracy of what she told you in private one of the issues that the commission is going to return to, given what it has since learned?

KEAN: Well, there were, as you know, some statements made by Mr. Clarke that she has now disagreed to in interviews, perhaps with some of you. She's said that didn't happen that way. Some others have said the same thing.

We're going to try and clear up the discrepancies as best we can. Some of those questions may be important to the fact-finding of our report. And obviously we will in our hearing go to some of those questions.

QUESTION: Does the commission have it within its discretion to release transcripts of private testimony at some point?

QUESTION: Or at any point?

KEAN: It depends. If the testimony is from somebody who was deeply involved in secrets, secrets that this government possesses, then no, we don't have that authorization by ourselves. That would have to go through the White House process then before it was released. If it's testimony from somebody who is not dealing with matters of national security, then I presume we would have the option, if we wanted to, of releasing that testimony. QUESTION: But clearly you've gotten vast amounts of private testimony that cover some of the material that's being released in public. And there's going to be, obviously, with the president and vice president appearing, a great deal of interest in what exactly they had to say. Have you given thought to how you're going to handle requests for the public release of private testimony?

HAMILTON: I think we've not given extensive thought to that. I don't think at this point we ruled anything in or ruled anything out. We will draft our report on the basis of our investigation of the facts.

And as I think you probably know, we have to submit the report to the White House prior to its publication for any national security matters. In other words, the White House will look it over to see if things should be stricken or reworded in order to comply with the national security requirements.

The problem with releasing transcripts from the private testimony would be that there would be very large areas, I think, that could not be made public.

We're going to try the best we can here to make this report as public as possible and to avoid, to the extent that we can, redactions.

QUESTION: You said that there are still questions over the timing and the where and how of the testimony of Dr. Rice, I assume, you said of some people, assuming that that includes here.

QUESTION: I know there are some concerns from some commissioners that they don't want her testimony to detract from some of the other important issues you're looking at at hearings that have already been scheduled.

But I'm sure, by the same token, the White House doesn't want to have just a day of focus on Condoleezza Rice. So can you talk about what's going on and how you're working to schedule those things and work out what's coming up? And also, was there a vote today by the commission? What were the mechanics of that?

KEAN: Well, first of all, if you remember what we said earlier, that this agreement was finally worked out last night. This morning, we were in commission meetings from 8:30 on, and broke the commission meeting to come over here. So we have not had time to talk to the White House about scheduling or anything else since that agreement was reached last night.

So that we'll simply be discussing, and obviously when we have dates worked out we'll let you know right away.

The commission takes very few votes. Where possible, we try to operate from consensus. And there was unanimous consensus this morning to accept the agreement that was worked out by the vice chairman and I with the White House. HAMILTON: There are a lot considerations that have to come into this scheduling. What's the order of the witnesses, as you suggest, may be an important part of it. But other more mundane matters are involved. Just the schedules of people and coordinating all of those schedules is no easy task. So that'll have to be done in the days ahead.

QUESTION: We have a fairly dramatic reversal of course by the White House on two key issues: Dr. Rice's testimony, and the meetings with the president and vice president. Were you surprised by the White House offer? And do you think it was a response to the flap over the Clarke book, or political pressure, or what?

KEAN: Well I couldn't guess at the motivation of the White House. All I can tell you is that this did not come suddenly, that these have been, as we said, a process of negotiations on this point and others now for going back some time.

KEAN: We were very happy that we were able to reach the agreement. We are very grateful to the White House for understanding that this was necessary for us to meet our mandate. But I understand your question. You make me get inside the White House, and I'm not there.

QUESTION: You spoke about one of the reasons with Condi Rice's testimony you wanted to clear up some of the discrepancies between what Clarke's recollection of events is being and which she's been saying publicly. Can you be any more specific on what key items you want to focus on with Condi Rice about what she needs to clear up?

KEAN: Personally, I'd have to go back over the testimony. I know, and many of you have written about some of the potential conflicts. And it's not necessarily they say what Condi Rice said to us in the four or five hours we had with her. Sometimes it's some of the things she said to all of you or in interviews since.

But there are some differences. And that's our job as a commission. These aren't the only differences we've found in recollections of people of various events over the last five or six years. And each of those times we get differences, we've got to try and talk to as many people as possible if we can reconcile those differences. If not, we've got to make some judgments in our final report.

HAMILTON: The staff is now reviewing testimony from both Mr. Clarke and the testimony we had from Dr. Rice. And the differences will be highlighted for us. I can think of two or three off-hand, but I don't think I should identify them because I don't want to give prominence to one or two above others.

QUESTION: To go back to this issue regarding the sudden change, and you're saying that it was something that's been in the works for quite some time, Condi Rice was on TV two days ago saying "absolutely will not, can not appear in public before the commission." Was the Rice issue on a separate track from the vice president issue? QUESTION: I mean, when you're referring to something being in the works for a long time, re you actually referring to the president and vice president issues, as opposed to the Rice issue, which seems to have taken a dramatic turn?

KEAN: What I was talking about really was the negotiations have been going on for a long time. And remember that to the best of my knowledge, and my reflection is that Dr. Rice did want to appear in public, herself. She was told because of the constitutional principles involved, that she wasn't able to. And that I gather was a matter of some distress to her personally.

So what we were talking about was not with her. We were talking with the lawyers involved in the issue, and that's where I was saying these discussions have been going on for some time. But the resolution came last night.

Now, sometimes you have to work on things for a while and then all of a sudden, there's a moment and, poof, things come together. And this may have been that moment last night. But that's what I meant by discussions have been going on for some time.

QUESTION: A couple of questions. First of all, I read somewhere that there was in fact no transcript of Dr. Rice's private meeting with you. Is that correct?

KEAN: I believe there are extensive notes, but no actual word- for-word transcript.

QUESTION: OK.

Also, will you be getting in -- or is it your intention with her to try and get into this question of the warnings that the administration and specifically the president received?

KEAN: Yes. We want to find out the warnings that occurred before 9/11. That's -- yes, we are going to get into that, yes.

HAMILTON: I think one of the big questions we have to address is the flow of information with regard to terrorism going to President Clinton and President Bush, so that we get a sense or a feel of how the presidents assessed the information coming to them. And we want to get a sense of what the information was that went to them, as far as we can re-create it.

QUESTION: Finally, Governor Kean, you were quoted in the New York Times this morning as using the phrase "on the penalty of perjury," which suggests that one of the things that you want to do by this public, sworn testimony is to ensure that Dr. Rice is being honest with you.

QUESTION: I mean, it seems to me that there's two elements to this. One, it'll be in public. But it will also be under oath. Could you talk about the importance of the second of those two elements a little bit? HAMILTON: I think it's very important to understand that when you put a witness under oath, it doesn't mean you think the witness is going to lie to you. We have put all of our public witnesses under oath this year, or at least most of them. And I think all of the senior officials have been put under oath.

I think when you do that, you indicate to the American people the seriousness of what you're doing and lend weight, I believe, to the testimony. But it certainly does not mean that the commission is thinking that the witness, whomever he or she may be, is not going to tell the truth.

QUESTION: I want to clear up one thing. Were you seeking additional time with Dr. Rice either in private or in public, however, prior to Dick Clarke's statements? Or was that the main impetus to want to question her again?

KEAN: No, we wanted to question her in public with or without Dick Clarke's appearance. We wanted to go through the -- for two days we wanted to have the full range of top officials who served the Clinton or Bush administration to talk about what happened leading up to 9/11.

She, because of issues of constitution, I guess, was the one official we weren't able to get in either administration. So naturally that would have left a hole, and that's why we wanted to see her. We got her testimony in private for the same reason. Before we knew anything about the public testimony that we got later from another witness.

KEAN: We had him for 15 hours in private, so we had a lot of his thoughts also.

QUESTION: Every time there's been an agreement with the White House, we find out later there's been some restrictions or some caveats. Is there anything here? Is there going to be a transcript of President Bush and Vice President Cheney's comments? Will there be any time restrictions? Are there any caveats that are come dribbling out in the days ahead here?

KEAN: We haven't talked of definite time. It's certainly going to be more than the hour that was originally offered some time ago. On the other hand, he's the president of the United States, so he's not going to take up all day with us either.

But we hope to be able to ask all the questions that are important to us. We're going to prioritize them, because it is the president and the vice president. We're going to talk to the staff and the commissioners about the most important questions that we need to inform our report.

We're going to start off with those, so we're sure of getting the most important question answered, and then we'll get every question, hopefully, that every commissioner has answered to the best of our ability in the time that we're given. HAMILTON: The president's letter -- or rather the counsel's letter, Mr. Gonzales' letter to us, to Tom Kean and myself, and our response to that letter, is the whole agreement. There are no side agreements at all. That's the whole agreement.

QUESTION: Will there be a transcript or will there just be notes?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You have been listening to former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean and former Democratic Congress Lee Hamilton. Both of them now in charge of the 9/11 Commission, expressing their great happiness that the White House has agreed that Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, will testify in public and under oath before the commission. And in addition, the president and the vice president will answer questions from the full 9/11 Commission.

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