Rice Willing to Talk -- But Not Under Oath

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 26, 2004; 10:58 AM

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice offered last night to sit down one more time with the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The offer caps a week in which Rice saturated media outlets with a variety of defenses of the Bush administration and a slew of attacks on critic Richard A. Clarke.

But last night's offer to the commission came with conditions: The meeting would be held in private, and not under oath.

As a result, the offer appears unlikely to stem increasing criticism of Rice.

As Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post, Rice has become a focal point of the controversy over Clarke's allegations that the Bush administration did not do enough to respond the threat posed by al Qaeda.

"The refusal by President Bush's top security aide to testify publicly before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks elicited rebukes by commission members as they held public hearings without her this week. . . .

"At the same time, some of Rice's rebuttals of Clarke's broadside against Bush, which she delivered in a flurry of media interviews and statements rather than in testimony, contradicted other administration officials and her own previous statements."

Pincus and Milbank go through those contradictions and discrepancies one by one.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "As she prepares to leave her job at the end of the year, Ms. Rice, the president's national security adviser, now finds herself at the center of a political storm, furiously defending both the White House and her own reputation.

"But her effort to blunt the criticism by spending the week on television and in news briefings may have had the opposite effect. . . .

"Ms. Rice has said repeatedly that if she had her way, she would testify, and late on Thursday she offered to be interviewed in private, as she was for four hours on Feb. 7. But President Bush, her close confidante, has been adamant, White House officials say, that any public appearance would violate longstanding precedent against incumbent national security advisers testifying before a legislative body."

(Note: Bumiller reported in January that Rice said she was planning to leave the administration this year.)

Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "In a letter to the commission's chairman, the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, said a return session would allow Ms. Rice to clear up 'a number of mischaracterizations' of her statements and positions. Mr. Gonzales said she would not appear at a public session of the panel because, he wrote, it was critical that presidential advisers 'not be compelled to testify publicly before Congressional bodies such as the commission.'"

David Gregory of NBC News asks: "So why not testify under oath?

"White House counsel Alberto Gonzales says it's unnecessary, because administration officials are duty-bound to tell the truth anyway."

Gregory shows a clip of Gonzales saying: "This is not a question about hiding information or not providing information, quite the contrary. You know, we've provided unprecedented access."

Then Gregory continues: "But despite that defense, tonight sources familiar with the 9/11 commission's thinking say the panel may actually push to get Dr. Rice under oath, particularly if she wants to contradict another witness."

ABC News's report on the increased pressure for Rice to testify gets the headline: "Rice in Hot Water."

The Attack on Clarke

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "As his advisers tell it, President Bush had tired of the White House playing defense on issue after issue. So this week, his aides turned the full power of the executive branch on Richard A. Clarke, formerly the administration's top counterterrorism official, who charges in his new book that Bush responded lackadaisically in 2001 to repeated warnings of an impending terrorist attack."

(See the White House Briefing column archive for more on this busy week.)

Allen writes: "Administration officials were so intent on mobilizing every possible argument that some of their points seemed contradictory. Collectively, they said Clarke was responsible for counterterrorism but out of the loop, claimed he was obsessed with which meetings he could attend but refused to go to some meetings, and argued both that his book was published too soon and too late."

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post that "President Bush sought Thursday to knock down allegations that the administration was inattentive to the threat posed by al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, saying he would have 'used every asset, every resource, every power of this government' to prevent the terrorist hijackings had he been warned of them."

His brief, unprompted comments came during a visit to a community college in New Hampshire that was devoted mainly to a pep talk about the economy. Here's the full text.

Bush said: "There's a commission going on in Washington, D.C. It's a very important commission. It's a commission determined to look at the eight months of my administration and the eight years of the previous administration to determine what we can learn, what we can do to make sure we uphold our solemn duty. Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to strike America, to attack us, I would have used every resource, every asset, every power of this government to protect the American people."

What About the Movie Rights

Rachel L. Swarns of the New York Times describes the Clarke book as "an unexpected literary phenomenon whose account of counterterrorism failures within the Bush administration has been flying off the shelves this week. . . .

"In Washington, Mr. Clarke's book is not just the talk of the town, it is practically the only conversation in town, having -- in just four days -- hijacked the news agenda and placing him in the ranks of other best-selling Washington authors like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. . . .

"Simon & Schuster, which also published Mrs. Clinton's book and the recent best-seller about Paul H. O'Neill, the former Treasury secretary, initially printed about 300,000 copies of Mr. Clarke's book, a very large number for a work of serious nonfiction, and it has since ordered 150,000 more copies."

Hillel Italie reports on the Associated Press wire that "superstores and independent retailers have reported nonstop demand.

"'It's the publishing phenomenon of the year,' Gabriel Voiles, a manager at Coliseum Books in New York, said Thursday. 'We cannot keep it in stock for more than two hours at a time.'"

And a survey of 1,065 Americans, conducted March 22-24 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press "shows that criticisms lodged by former White House counter-terrorism aide Richard Clarke are drawing significant public interest." Only 10 percent said they hadn't heard about Clarke's claims; 47 percent said they'd heard a little; 42 percent said they'd heard a lot.

"Against All Enemies" is No. 1 bestselling book on Amazon.com. No. 2, by the way, is MoveOn.org's "50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change." And No. 3 is the 12th and latest installment of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series.

There's finally a decent-sized excerpt of the book on the Web here, from the New York Times.

Slate dices and juliennes the book, presenting what it calls the "most salient" bits.

And Jim Axelrod of CBS News shows Kerry on his way home from vacation, Clarke book in hand -- but not commenting. "It's very interesting," Kerry said. "I've got to finish it, before I give you any opinions."

Advance Copy

While the book was scrupulously embargoed until its release on Monday, there was one glaring exception: The White House had a copy months ago.

Al Kamen points out in his In the Loop column for The Washington Post that "the Bush folks are acting as if they just heard last weekend that [Clarke] had a book coming out. . . .

"Clarke, bound by the usual pre-publication review agreement, shipped it to the National Security Council on Nov. 4 for a review that lasted at least a couple of months, the White House said.

"Not once, apparently, did the NSC reviewers mention to the communications or political people that they had an election bomb on their hands.

"Buzz is that the NSC types apparently felt it would have been inappropriate to do so."

Don't Forget That Other Book

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers writes: "Tell-all books from former Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, as well as accounts from other administration insiders, shed light on President Bush's decision-making style. Critics say the flip side of the legendary discipline at the Bush White House is a near-complete disregard for alternative opinions that sometimes leads to trouble.

"In Clarke's view, Bush's reliance on a small circle of aides blinded the president to threats from al-Qaida terrorists and the negative consequences of invading Iraq. O'Neill said the tightly held decision-making process foreclosed any meaningful discussion about the impact of the bigger federal deficits that resulted from Bush's tax cuts."

Comedian in Chief

"WMD JOKE FLAP" screams the huge headline on the cover of the New York Daily News. "JOKE BOMBS: Bush's Non-Sense of Humor?" screams the nydailynews.com home page. (And most people responding to their online poll call Bush's WMD joke "about as funny as a slain soldier.")

Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's joking references to a search for weapons of mass destruction in the White House drew criticism yesterday from Democrats, who said the after-dinner remarks were tasteless and insensitive."

Raymond Hernandez writes in the New York Times: "This morning the joke did not seem quite so funny. CNN, which showed a clip of the event, was getting e-mail messages from unhappy viewers. Foreign newspapers were reacting with outrage. And the White House was busy defending the joke that President Bush delivered as he put on a slide show, called the 'White House Election-Year Album,' at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association's 60th annual dinner.

The Nation's David Corn was there, and writes about experiencing "an awful you're-all-alone moment" when Bush joked about the missing weapons of mass destruction, and everyone else laughed.

"Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident that he deceitfully used as a rationale for U.S. military action in Vietnam: 'Who knew that fish had torpedoes?' Or if Ronald Reagan appeared at a correspondents event following the truck-bombing at the Marines barracks in Beirut -- which killed over 200 American servicemen -- and said, 'Guess we forgot to put in a stop light.' Or if Clinton had come out after the bombing of Serbia -- during which U.S. bombs errantly destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed several people there -- and said, 'The problem is, those embassies -- they all look alike.'"

I wrote about Bush's jokes in yesterday's column, in a lighthearted way. I linked to the full text of his remarks. (MSNBC.com also has video. You can barely make out the pictures -- but the White House refused to release copies yesterday.)

Several readers took me to task. None more effectively than Carol Bruce from Germantown, who wrote:

"I have to say that I find the fact that George W. Bush was making a joke out of his fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association 60th annual dinner really offensive. I have a family member who is currently serving in Iraq. His life is on the line day and night. And our President, the man who put him there, thinks it's funny that the purported reason for sending him to Iraq has turned out to be nothing more than a 'snipe hunt.' Mr. Bush owes the members of our military and their families an apology. It is callous, insensitive, and extreme arrogance to make light of such an issue. He should be accepting responsibility for his mistakes and bringing our troops home, rather than using the situation to entertain the media."

Inside the White House

A political science professor from little-known Towson University in Maryland is shedding light on the inner workings of the White House and the press by getting prominent officials and journalists to open up to her students -- and the Internet.

Martha Joynt Kumar's "White House Communications Series," is sort of like "Inside the Actor's Studio" but for the White House instead of showbiz.

Kumar seems to live in the White House press basement, where she observes everything and is writing a book about it. She's also made a lot of friends over the years.

Alec MacGillis recently wrote a story in the Baltimore Sun about the class and included some excerpts from a variety of speakers, who have so far included White Huse Communications Director Dan Bartlett, White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times and legendary White House reporter/columnist Helen Thomas, among others. Press secretary Scott McClellan is scheduled for April 19.

Videos of the 90-minutes sessions are available here.

Bartlett, in particular, was in an expansive, relaxed mood when he talked to Kumar on March 8.

He spoke of how the White House press apparatus is adjusting to campaign mode.

"We're coming out of spring training," he said. "We're trying to integrate and work with our campaign operation in the sense of who's going to respond to what, is this an official response, is this a campaign response, how do we make sure that our campaign and the White House are on the same message.

"We have conference calls every morning with them, I have a full team that we've picked and that are over in the campaign office that are executing from a campaign message standpoint which also includes obviously counteracting whatever's being said by the Democrat nominee.

"But we're still kind of working out the kinks of how that's going to work. There are some days when the president is doing official events and campaign events, we're now having campaign press secretaries traveling with the official press secretary, sort of handing off the baton."

Bartlett also talked about his attempt -- not entirely successful -- to set up "deep background" meetings between Bush and members of the press. Deep background means that a reporter cannot attribute the information to anyone.

(Mike Allen of The Washington Post wrote a story about this on March 3, and it led my column that day.)

"You're always looking for an environment in which your principal -- the president, for me, in this case -- can share his thoughts with reporters, in a way that I think maximizes the time of the reporters and the time of the president, in which they can get a sense of his thinking, of what he thinks is important. And sometimes if you do that on camera, or you do that in an on-the-record type format, just by human nature you're going to be more cautious. You're going to think through your answers a little bit more . . . than you might in a private conversation. . . .

"So we brought in the correspondents covering ABC News, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox. . . to come in on a deep background basis with the president, so the president could share his views. . . .

"What it gave them was some context on a lot of different issues, in case they did come up . . . whether it be North Korea or this or that . . . and they had some background information from the president that could illuminate their thinking and help enrich their reporting.

"Well, what happened, because they work in such a competitive environment, none of these guys, or women, can do anything without the other ones knowing. And they all live on top of each other down there in the lower press office.

"And so when Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, called them up, people took notice that all the network guys and cable guys were going up . . . to Scott's office -- and I told Scott, you'd better tell them that there nothing's happening, that there's no big news event, that the president wants to meet with them not on any specific matter, but just to have a general conversation.

"Well they all went back before we went in, to call their desks and tell them this. So they call the desk, and the desk talks to this reporter, and this reporter talks to that reporter, and by this time, despite the fact that we told them nothing was going on, ABC News was convinced that we had captured Osama bin Laden. . . .

"They were convinced, despite the fact that we'd told them flat-out that this wasn't the case. So we were in the Oval Office, having the meeting, and -- I learn afterwards -- George Stephanopoulous, Brian Ross, who's the investigative reporter for ABC News and Peter Jennings, were literally in their seats, in New York, on the set, waiting for their correspondent to come out to confirm -- thinking that we were going to announce Bin Laden was captured.

"We're in the meeting, John Roberts, who's the correspondent for CBS News, starts getting buzzed on his BlackBerry, and, you know, it's kind of distracting, in the middle of the conversation with the president, his like BlackBerry is just buzzing away and we're finally, 'Answer the thing, do something,' and so he grabs it, and you know all these networks have sources in their . . . competitors' areas."

Roberts reads a message that ABC News is about to report the capture of Osama bin Laden, "so he asks the president, he says, 'Have you captured Osama bin Laden?' and the president's like, 'You think I'd be sitting here with you, if we'd captured Bin Laden? No!'

"So that happened, and then the Washington Post, who was not involved in this, decided that despite the fact that this was a deep background conversation, and that they were not involved in, since they knew it took place and picked up through scuttlebutt and other ways what had happened in there, they reported as a news story the next day, attributing to the president some of the thing that were said, and who was involved.

"Before they wrote it that night, both Scott and myself complained to the Post, complained to his editor . . . who was overseeing the story, saying that this was going to hinder our ability to do this in the future and it would actually influence our decision as to whether the Washington Post would be able to participate, if you can't abide by the ground rules and recognize those ground rules, then . . . that has to influence our decision when we do this in the future.

"They took that into consideration and decided to report it anyway."

As the Sun noted, Bartlett also talked about whether he thinks there's a liberal bias in the White House press corps:

"I don't think it's a partisan bias. I think most journalists who cover us probably come from a Democrat or liberal persuasion, but I don't think they come in and say, 'I want to attack the president.' I do think it's more motivated by careers. Everyone wakes up every morning and says, 'How am I going to get my pretty little mug on the nightly news?' 'How am I going to get the lead story above the fold?' . . . They've got to be provocative."

The Sun also quoted Bumiller, the New York Times White House correspondent, responding to criticism that reporters were too easy on Bush on the eve of the Iraq war:

"I think we were very deferential because . . . it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."

Some bloggers, including Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler and Eric Alterman, have been somewhat critical.

In other White House correspondent news, Geov Parrish writes in the Seattle Weekly about Helen Thomas's scathing views of the White House press corps and the Bush administration.

For the record, by the way, Thomas still has her front-row seat in the daily press briefings. She was only kicked toward the back for Bush's last news conference in the East Room.

And here (finally) is a link to "Fortress Bush," the seminal New Yorker story from January about the White House press corps by Ken Auletta that's been so much discussed in this column.

Ad Watch

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times dissect this new Bush/Cheney ad.

Nick Anderson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The president's advertisement, expected to target 18 key states, is the fourth to attack John F. Kerry by name since the Bush campaign went on air three weeks ago. Its central premise, expanding on recent Republican attacks, is that Kerry's record shows him in favor of raising taxes in a variety of ways -- pointing to what Kerry would do if elected president, Bush aides said."

First Lady Watch

William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers writes: "The first lady has assumed a prominent role in her husband's re-election campaign. After headlining only a few fund-raisers in 2000, Laura Bush has been the main attraction at 16 Bush-Cheney fund-raisers since last June. . . .

"In so doing, some political analysts and experts on first ladies think, Bush's activities are helping to shatter her image as a demure spouse with little interest in political events of the day, 'the anti-Hillary' Clinton."

Here are the first lady's remarks at the Alzheimer's Association Gala on Wednesday, where she appeared with former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Rosalyn Carter, and her remarks at a political fundraiser earlier that day.

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press about Bush's trip today to Albuquerque and Phoenix to talk about "the strength of the housing market, touting it as one of the accomplishments of his administration."

Bush in Boston

Wayne Washington of the Boston Globe writes: "President Bush attended a splashy campaign fund-raiser yesterday on the home turf of presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, calling his rival 'one of the main opponents of tax relief' and pulling in $1.2 million at a cocktail reception in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel."

Also in the Globe, Donovan Slack writes about the "Billionaires for Bush," a unusual group of protesters who showed up outside the fundraiser wearing ball gowns and suits and drinking champagne -- and carrying signs saying "Free the Enron Seven" and "Corporations are People Too!"

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