Sept. 11 group talks to top security adviser

Sunday, February 8, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The independent commission reviewing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks met with President Bush's national security adviser Saturday in an interview commissioners described as candid and productive.

Condoleezza Rice met with the commission privately for four hours Saturday at the White House to discuss what the administration could have done to prevent the attacks.

"It was a very useful interview and I personally found Dr. Rice to be candid and forthcoming," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commissioner and former Watergate prosecutor. "I think it would be useful for the public to hear from Dr. Rice."

"I thought the tone and level of cooperation of the exchange was productive," said Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

But he added, "I strongly underscore and underline the need" to have Rice and Sandy Berger, national security adviser under former President Clinton, testify in public.

Neither Ben-Veniste nor Roemer would give details of what she said.

"It was a good exchange," said White House spokesman Sean McCormack. He said Rice talked with the commissioners about the administration's immediate response to the attacks, recommendations for the commission and efforts prior to the attacks to develop policies to counter terrorist threats from al-Qaida.

He said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who chairs the commission, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the vice chairman, were present at the West Wing meeting with Rice along with other commissioners and members of the panel's staff.

In May 2002, Rice said there had been no prior indication terrorists were considering suicide hijackings. But reports later indicated that intelligence officials had considered the possibility of such strikes as recently as one month before the attacks.

The commission is still trying to get Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to testify, as well as Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

Commissioners have previously suggested they also want Cabinet members, as well as Rice, to testify in public hearing, but none of them have said whether they will do so.

"My feeling is that she should be testifying publicly and under oath," said Mary Fetchet of New Canaan, Conn., a member of the commission's Family Steering Committee, said in advance of Saturday's session.

"The American public should hear her explain how she's had conflicting statements with regard to what she knew and didn't know," said Fetchet, whose son, Brad, died in the attacks.

The Sept. 11 panel -- known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before the attacks and its response afterward, and to make recommendations for guarding against similar disasters.

Commission members have complained that their work repeatedly has been delayed because of disputes with the administration over access to documents and witnesses.

The commission is expected to decide this week whether to subpoena notes it took on classified presidential briefing papers, including an August 2001 memorandum that discusses the possibility of airline hijackings by al-Qaida terrorists. A four-member commission team reviewed the material in December but weren't allowed to take their notes with them to share with the other commissioners.

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