WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush agreed yesterday to do
what he had insisted for weeks he would not: allow National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly and under
oath before an independent panel investigating the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks.

The White House also agreed that Bush and Vice President Dick
Cheney would answer questions — together, in private —
before the entire commission.

The turnabout reflected administration concern that the
president’s strongest point with voters — his
leadership in the war on terror — could be eroded if the
high-publicity dispute over Rice’s testimony lingered.

“I’ve ordered this level of cooperation because I
consider it necessary to gaining a complete picture of the months
and years that preceded the murder of our fellow citizens on Sept.
11, 2001,” Bush said.

“Our nation must never forget the loss or the lessons of
September the 11th, and we must never assume that the danger has
passed,” he said in short remarks in the White House briefing
room. He took no questions.

The commission’s Republican chairman, former New Jersey
Gov. Thomas Kean, welcomed the decision and said the White House
shouldn’t be concerned that the testimony would violate the
principles of executive privilege or separation of powers.

“We recognize the fact that this is an extraordinary
event,” Kean said. “This does not set a
precedent.” He said there was still no time set —
either for Rice’s public testimony or for Bush and
Cheney’s private appearance. Administration officials said
her appearance probably would come at the end of next week.

Bush is staking much of his re-election bid on his performance
as president after the 2001 attacks.

But former Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke —
in a best-selling book and testimony before the Sept. 11 commission
last week — contended the president had been slow to act
against al-Qaida before the attacks and compromised the anti-terror
battle afterward by going to war in Iraq.

Opinion polls suggest support for Bush’s handling of the
war on terror has declined. Two surveys out this week show the
president’s approval ratings on that issue are now in the
high 50 percent range after being in the mid-60s for months.

Although the erosion has not hurt Bush in one-on-one polling
against Democratic rival John Kerry, the White House saw a brewing
problem.

It waged a vigorous counterattack on Clarke’s credibility.
But the many hours Rice spent rebutting Clarke in the news media
only raised anew the criticism of the White House refusal to let
her testify publicly.

Even Republicans began saying the administration’s
argument on separation of powers should be tossed aside.

Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from
Washington state, said he was delighted at Bush’s change of
heart, but he added: “I think the White House would have been
better off if it had made the agreements sooner.”

Bush has reversed himself in the face of political realities on
several previous occasions, especially on the subject of the Sept.
11 commission.

Most recently, the administration, which had wanted to restrict
any access to the president by the panel to just one hour, relaxed
that limit.

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