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Bush: Rice To 'Lay Out The Facts'

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice speaks with Ed Bradley
AP
President Bush said Monday his national security adviser "knows exactly what took place and will lay out the facts" when she testifies before the Sept. 11 commission.

Condoleezza Rice's testimony on Thursday was assured only after the White House changed course last week under pressure and decided to allow her to appear publicly and under oath. She has testified in a private session in February.

"She's a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place and will lay out the facts," Mr. Bush told reporters while on an economic and fund-raising trip to North Carolina.

"That's what the commission's job is meant to do and that's what the American people want to see and I'm looking forward to people hearing her."

Mr. Bush said he was looking forward to his own meeting with the commission, a joint session with Vice President Dick Cheney that will be private.

The president said he planned to tell the commission that his administration "would have done everything in our power" to stop the attacks had the government been able to anticipate them.

"What is important for them to hear is not only that, but that when I realized that the stakes had changed, this country immediately went on war footing and we went to war against al Qaeda," the president said.

"It took me very little time to make up my mind, once I determined al Qaeda did do it, to say, `We're going to go get them,' and we have," he said.

Mr. Bush did not say when he and Cheney will appear before the commission.

"I told them I'd meet with them at a time that's convenient for all of us and hopefully we'll come to that date soon," the president said.

Their joint testimony was part of a deal between the commission and the White House.

"All things considered, maybe we would have rather had them one at a time, but we don't see any problem with it, really," the commission chairman, former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey, said Sunday.

Commissioners are not expecting the White House to order major changes, based on national security concerns, to the commission's final report.

The panel is due to complete its report on July 26. Security specialists from the CIA, the FBI and other agencies first must review it, under White House supervision, for possible security leaks.

The New York Times reports that some of the questions Rice faces may concern her public comments and leadership style. The newspaper reports that she often failed to mention terrorism in major speeches about foreign policy threats. And she delegated responsibility for counterterrorism to an aide.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that a speech Rice was due to give on Sept. 11, 2001 on major security threats facing the U.S. focused on missile defense, not al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or Islamic terrorism. A CBS News review of Mr. Bush's speeches and public remarks prior to Sept. 11 found that he appeared not to have mentioned bin Laden or al Qaeda a single time.

Even harsh critics of Rice, like former counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, have said they do not believe the 2001 attacks could have been prevented.

But the commission's leaders aren't so sure.

"There are a lot of ifs; you can string together a whole bunch of ifs, and if things had broken right in all kinds of different ways, as the governor has identified, and frankly if you'd had a little luck, it probably could have been prevented," the panel's vice chairman, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said.

Kean said late last year that he felt the attacks might have been prevented.

But Bush adviser Karen Hughes told NBC: "I just don't think, based on everything I know, and I was there, that there was anything that anyone in government could have done to have put together the pieces before the horror of that day."

To help Rice defuse the attacks, some administration officials are urging that more White House papers be declassified to show the mixed message the president was receiving about al Qaeda, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart. Perhaps this move would even take the sting out of Mr. Bush's own words to an author that he never felt any "sense of urgency" about al Qaeda until after Sept. 11.

Rice will need to answer how that happened, said former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a panel member.

"Nineteen men with $350,000 defeated every single defensive mechanism we had up on the 11th of September, 2001, and they defeated it utterly," Kerrey said.

Rice also will be asked how to correct "what has gone wrong so badly," said a Republican commissioner, former Navy Secretary John Lehman.

"She's now got her mind focused on just what went wrong, and I want to hear her views on some of the things that we're going to do and be recommending to make fundamental changes," Lehman said. He appeared with Kerrey on CBS' Face the Nation.

The White House initially refused to allow Rice to testify in public, citing executive privilege. But under intense public pressure, the White House relented last week.

Newsweek reports that a staffer from Kean's commission faxed a photograph from November 1945 of presidential chief of staff Admiral William Leahy appearing before a special congressional panel investigating the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Accompanying the photo was a note saying the photo would be all over Washington in 24 hours if the White House didn't allow Rice to testify publicly.

The White House denied that the photograph forced its hand.