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White House Requests Another Private Meeting Between National Security Advisor Rice, 9/11 Commission - 2004-03-26

The White House is making an all out effort to counter criticism of President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism from a former top member of his national security team.

Richard Clarke's criticism has clearly hit a raw nerve at the White House. And now, even the president is speaking out.

Mr. Clarke, who served as White House counterterrorism coordinator until about a year ago, charges the president ignored the threat from al-Qaida prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks and instead was fixated on Iraq.

The allegations first appeared in a new book that hit stores on Monday, and made him the center of attention Wednesday when he appeared before the independent commission investigating the attacks.

President Bush took note of the commission hearing, and inserted comments about the panel in remarks prepared for delivery Thursday at an event in New Hampshire originally set up to call attention to his economic policies.

"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, and every power of this government to protect the American people," he said.

A few hours later came another sign of White House concern over Richard Clarke's testimony - an indication of the administration's determination to make sure its side of the story is heard and understood by the American people.

The president's chief legal counsel sent a letter to the commission, asking if White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice could meet in private once again with the panel. In the letter, Alberto Gonzales said she wanted to clear up, what he termed, a number of mischaracterizations.

The offer falls short of demands from some commission members. They have already met with her once behind closed doors for four hours and say they want her to testify publicly and under oath.

In the letter to the commission, the White House counsel noted that top presidential advisors never, as a rule, testify before commissions created by Congress. He said that is especially true in the national security area, where much of the advice provided is, and should remain, confidential.

During an interview with NBC television, Mr. Gonzales also noted that legally it is not necessary for Condoleezza Rice to testify under oath. He said White House officials are already required to tell the truth.

"This is not a question about hiding information or not providing information, quite the contrary. We have provided unprecedented access," he said.

The deadline for the commission to release its final report is in July. That means it will come in the heat of the presidential campaign, and about the same time as the Democratic Party's national convention.