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Center of the Storm

April 7, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Two perspectives now on tomorrow’s high-stakes appearance by Condoleezza Rice: They come from David Sanger, White House correspondent for The New York Times, and presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Welcome to you both.

So, David, how high are stakes for the White House? How high does the White House think the stakes are?

DAVID SANGER: They think they’re enormous, Margaret, and I think really for three reasons: First, you have the overview of the election year because the president is running, of course, on the platform that he is the strongest candidate on terrorism. And this will be the moment he determines whether that’s only been the case since Sept. 11, if in fact you say that is the case now or whether or not the president actually was neglecting the subject prior to Sept. 11. That’s of course what Democrats will be looking for.

I’m not sure many Republicans question whether or not voters will actually differentiate how George Bush dealt with the issue before and after, but this will be that moment. There are enormous stakes for Condoleezza Rice herself. She said this is her last year as national security adviser, but she’s left open the possibility she could take a cabinet post in the next term. That could be as defense secretary as many believe, perhaps secretary of state. I think a lot rides on that. And I think finally this is the moment where the person closest to the president will be explaining to the world what was in the president’s mind as he got this series of increasingly alarming terror warnings during the summer of 2001.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Not only the person closest to the president, national security advisers usually are. This is the national security adviser in history more close to this president than really any other. There is not only a close working relationship. She spends weekends with the Bush family at Camp David. It is almost a family relationship of a kind we’ve never seen before. So the result is that if they’re asking her questions and not just asking some clerk who’s in the outer office, they’re asking someone in whom the president has really confided, as he does few people.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think… there has been a lot of hoopla about tomorrow. All the networks, us included, are televising it live, even though it’s in the morning. Where does this rank, though, on the hit parade of big Washington moments? Has the national security adviser ever been at the heart of it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it’s high on the hit parade. National security adviser has, at least one, John Poindexter late 1980s-1987 testified before the Iran-Contra Committee, former national security adviser, one of the architects of the Iran-Contra arms for hostages trade. He was indicted, prosecuted and convicted of lying before Congress. He would have gone to prison if he did not have immunity. That has happened before. So in terms of the hit parade, this is very high on it. I don’t think we are going to see something like that tomorrow.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House, and we’re talking about, as a person. Of course we know it’s a lot of people close to the president. Do they see this spotlight that is going to be so intense tomorrow as an opportunity or as something more negative? And how are they approaching it?

DAVID SANGER: It depends on who you ask, Margaret. There are certainly many who believe this is an opportunity because they view Condoleezza Rice as the most articulate, the most calming, and when she wants to be, the most charming face of this administration. So they think that they could in one morning put all this to rest. You don’t hear them making the kind of comparisons to John Poindexter who, of course, had resurfaced at various moments in this administration that might have been made.

At the same time, there are many in this White House who believe that is a moment of spectacle that never needed to happen: That had they had Condoleezza Rice testify the same day that Mr. Clarke did two weeks ago, there would have been a day or two — here’s Clarke’s version, here’s Rice’s version — and we would be on to other subjects. But by waiting all this time and going through the process of waving the executive privilege, they’ve made this a spectacle.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the commission also pushed very, very hard for this. They wouldn’t take half the loaf.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s at stake for the commission? Was it just a matter of getting her to say publicly what she said privately, or in the intervening weeks or more than weeks, many weeks, have there been enough factual… are there really factual issues they need her to resolve, or conflicts?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There is private testimony, of course but I think they recognize one thing, and that is for the American public, they usually notice about one or two public witnesses. Look at the Watergate investigation. John Dean testified before Congress, the other president, President Nixon was at the center of the conspiracy. The Nixon people said well we’ll put up later on Alderman, Ehrlichman, our people on the president’s side to rebut him. It never quite worked.

In this case had Richard Clarke gotten the kind of attention he did, Kwame’s excellent piece made the point just before we came on, and you didn’t have someone of Condi Rice’s stature to say it wasn’t that way and let me tell you why. This investigation, these public hearings, will be remembered for the testimony of one man, Dick Clarke.

MARGARET WARNER: What do people in the White House think is the biggest challenge here, the biggest potential pitfall for them?

DAVID SANGER: Margaret, I think the big challenge here that they’re all worried about is that Dr. Rice has to somehow explain the summer of 2001 in a way that puts together a reasonable story that we had a flood of intelligence coming in but none of it was specific enough to point us to the events that led to 9/11.

So I think that you’ll see her try to address a couple of questions. One is she’s got to make the case that she digested all the intelligence that was coming in and reacted to it, and one argument I think you’ll hear tomorrow is that she’s the one, along with Andy Card, the chief of staff, who called the meeting on July 5, 2001, that called in the domestic agencies and said look, we have to consider the possibility of a domestic attack even though the intelligence is pointing to a foreign attack.

I think she has to make the case that she was not distracted by the other issues under way, the EP-3 spy plane incident with China, Russia, the ABM Treaty.

And finally I think that she has to show that she reacted with urgency to Mr. Clarke’s Jan. 25 memo that said we need a new strategy here, and that this process that took from that day — until Sept. 4 or Sept. 8, depending who you believe — is that there was a reason they got something done in those eight months in putting together a bigger strategy than the one that Dick Clarke had left.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you see or rather what do you think the commission sees as its potential — its challenges? They only have two and a half, maybe three hours with her.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that’s why this is really… it’s a gamble by the White House but is a very calculated gamble because in two and a half hours, almost anyone can control that time if they’re a witness.

If this were open ended and she were there for five days and you had these people on the commission saying all right, you were in the room with President Bush. What was the look on his face and what did he tell you about Iraq and its relationship to al-Qaida? Trying to get embarrassing stuff out, that would be one thing. But two and a half hours, an awful lot of members of the commission asking questions — this is about as small a gamble as they could take and they know there is a very great likelihood that people may well remember these hearings at least as much for Condi Rice if not more for Dick Clarke.

DAVID SANGER: Remember the terms of the deal here. Once Condi Rice appears, no other members of the White House staff get drawn in for public testimony. That means that Steve Hadley, her deputy who is running that whole policy process doesn’t get called.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there any ground rules about tomorrow about things she cannot be asked?

DAVID SANGER: We haven’t heard any that are explicit. But clearly, in her private testimony, she discussed a lot of classified material, including perhaps what was in the Aug. 6 presidential brief; that is when the president was briefed about past attempts to use aircraft. And so I assume that if they do raise a classified issue, the issue could come down to, I can’t discuss it here.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And even beyond the more abstract issues, the White House is gambling that if the American people watch this woman and they love her, this could be a huge plus, and could wipe out a lot of the damage that Dick Clarke did.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, David, thank you.

DAVID SANGER: Thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you.