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PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: From the day the panel was created, I have directed executive branch agencies and members of my staff to cooperate with the commission. Recognizing the exceptional nature of this inquiry, we have given commission members access to relevant presidential daily briefings to my communications with foreign leaders and to internal White House communications.
More than 800 members of the administration have been interviewed. More than 20 White House officials have met with the commission, or soon will do so. Dr. Rice herself has already met privately with the commission for four hours. 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.
As the commission has done its work, I’ve also been concerned, as has Dr. Rice, that an important principle be upheld: A president and his advisers, including his adviser for national security affairs, must be able to communicate freely and privately without being compelled to reveal those communications to the legislative branch. This principle of the separation of powers is protected by the Constitution, is recognized by the courts and has been defended by presidents of both political parties.
We have observed this principle while also seeking ways for Dr. Rice to testify so that the public record is full and accurate. Now, the commission and leaders of the United States Congress have given written assurances that the appearance of the national security advisor will not be used as precedent in the conduct of future inquiries. The leaders of Congress and the commission agree. They agree with me that the circumstances of this case are unique because the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were unique.
JIM LEHRER: More on the White House decision, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s behind the White House turnaround on testifying before the 9/11 commission? For that we’re joined by David Sanger, White House correspondent for the New York Times. Welcome back, David. This was quite a change of heart on the administration’s part. What brought it about?
DAVID SANGER: The White House officials we spoke to today, Margaret, say that the big change came this weekend as the president was down at the ranch, examined what had been really a very rough week for him with Richard Clarke’s accusations, both in his book and in testimony, that the administration had moved too slowly in responding to the terrorist threats from the day they came to office until Sept. 11.
The president, we were told, was concerned that too much of the argument was about process; that the administration was appearing obstructionist, and he called his general counsel Gonzalez and said we have to find a way out of this. What is interesting is that they could have done much of that months ago. But it seems from talking to White House officials, that at this point the political pressure on them grew fairly irresistible.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom Kean, chairman of the commission, today said his understanding that was Rice herself was quite distressed that she wasn’t able to testify publicly. Can you confirm that from your own reporting? And if so, who was the advocate for not having her testify?
DAVID SANGER: She had said in public and in private that she wanted to testify, and certainly you saw her going out and appearing frequently describing her position last week on television and in newspapers. Within the White House, it was an interesting dynamic here.
The vice president’s office appears, from what we’re told, to have been dead set against violating the executive privilege. Vice President Cheney over the years has frequently been the one who has most — has been most insistent that the president bring back what he sees as eroded powers of the presidency over the past few decades.
That translated into the position taken by the White House counsel’s office. But in the end, of course, it’s President Bush’s decision. And it was President Bush who decided to carve this exception to the executive privilege rule while claiming at the same time, as previous presidents have, that he is not setting a precedent by doing so.
MARGARET WARNER: That was in fact one of the conditions that they set, that leaders of Congress and the commission put in writing, that this was no precedent. Tom Kean said the deal fell into place last night. Explain the thinking behind the conditions that the White House did set.
DAVID SANGER: There were a few different conditions. The first is the one that you’ve mentioned on the precedent setting nature of this. The second was that the president and the vice president will both testify it seems that time limit. You’ll recall that a few weeks ago the president was insisting he would only see a few commission members for an hour.
Now he and Vice President Cheney together will see entire commission for some unlimited period of time. What’s interesting about this is the president and the vice president will be in the same room at the same time, and this, of course, as both commission staff and White House staff have noted, will mean that they will hear each other’s answers. Now, you can draw your own conclusions as to whether or not that would affect the testimony in any way.
MARGARET WARNER: The White House also insisted, as part of this agreement, we’re told, that this will be the last request for any public testimony by any White House official. Were they afraid there were going to be other requests?
DAVID SANGER: It’s possible they were. It is possible that the testimony they would hear from the president or the vice president or Dr. Rice could result in more questions to resolve differences, differences for example between what Mr. Clarke told them and what they’ve heard here. I think you’ve heard some of the commission members discuss the discrepancies here.
For example, this means that Steve Hadley, who’s the deputy national security advisor would not be testifying in public and it is Mr. Hadley that runs much of the deputy process, the set of meetings just below Dr. Rice’s level where many of the decisions are made and recommendations are forwarded.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, David, if Dr. Rice wants to testify, as she said, what is the most important thing, if you know, that she particularly wants to rebut or set the record straight on?
DAVID SANGER: The thing that seemed to have most people in the White House upset about Mr. Clarke’s testimony last week was his argument that the White House had done very little in the eight months between the time that President Bush was inaugurated and the Sept. 11 attacks. And that in the end, the plan that they adopted was very similar to a memorandum he had sent in January of 2001 — in other words, that they spent eight months getting not very far.
Dr. Rice wants to make the argument that in fact they had done a lot in that time period, although clearly not enough. You heard Deputy Secretary Armitage of the State Department say just because you are on the right track doesn’t mean you won’t get run over.
MARGARET WARNER: David Sanger, thanks again.
DAVID SANGER: Thank you, Margaret.