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Condoleezza Rice Refuses to Testify

Aired March 29, 2004 - 17:00:00   ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN HOST (voice-over): Who knew what before the unthinkable? Allegations that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the Bush administration ignored the warnings and dropped the ball. Why won't the nation's top foreign policy official testify in public?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) a partisan issue. We're seeing all this debate back and forth between Democrats and Republicans about who was at fault and for us, we don't want to make it partisan. We just want to ensure that whatever did happen, whatever information they had before 9/11 that could have prevented it, gets out there so we can make sure it doesn't happen again.


MCEDWARDS: Hello and welcome to INSIGHT. I'm Colleen McEdwards, in for Jonathan Mann.

There's growing pressure for Condoleezza Rice to appear before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks. She says it's a matter of principle that she speak only in private.

Well, that might have been a good enough reason in different times and on a different subject, but September 11 was an unprecedented attack and it's an election year in the United States, so don't count on this going away any time soon.

On our program today, the controversy over Condoleezza Rice.

Let's begin with some of what she said on the news magazine "60 Minutes."


ED BRADLEY, "60 MINUTES": you can talk to us and other news programs, why can't you talk to the commission in public and under oath?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify. I would really like to do that. But there is an important principle here ... it is a longstanding principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.


MCEDWARDS: This whole controversy boiled over when former counter- terrorism adviser Richard Clarke claimed that Rice and other top officials ignored his warnings about al Qaeda and that President Bush was too fixated on Iraq.

The White House has countered with its own claims that Clarke has been inconsistent, praising the administration a few years ago and then slamming it in his new book. The suggestion is clear, that Clarke is somehow trying to profit from all of this.

Richard Clarke denies it.


RICHARD CLARKE, FMR. COUNTER-TERRORISM ADVISER: I've intended all along to make substantial donations from the profits of this book. I'm now being told that there are people in the White House who are trying to destroy me personally, people who are saying Dick Clarke will never make another dime in this city. So I have to take that into account too.


MCEDWARDS: Members of the Bush administration are rallying to Condoleezza Rice's defense.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is taking issue with the criticism of Condoleezza Rice. In an exclusive interview with "Time" magazine, Mr. Cheney says allegations made by Richard Clarke are unfair.

Cheney says, "To evaluate her performance only in that context is a bum rap. It doesn't do justice at all to what she has contributed. Evaluate the process and Condy's role in terms of whether the president has made the right decisions. There's no question that he has made the right decisions."

Well, let's get the very latest now from CNN senior White House correspondent John King.

John, how big of a concern is this for White House officials given that this is an election year if it turns out that Mr. Bush is painted by all of this as someone who mishandled the issue of terrorism?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Colleen, even many Republican strategists who are very close to this administration believe the administration is making a giant political miscalculation. It's somehow create the perception or allowing the perception that it has something to hide by refusing to let Condoleezza Rice testify in public before the 9/11 commission.

Yes, there are legal precedents that go back years. Yes, it would be extraordinarily rare for a sitting national security adviser to testify under oath before what is a congressional body, a 9/11 Commission created by the United States Congress.

But Mr. Bush himself frequently says 9/11 was the day that changed everything. It is a unique day in American history. Many political strategists think he should make unique rules and let his national security adviser go out in public, but, Colleen, the White House says today it will still hold firm, that she will not testify publicly. She will meet with the commission again and they're trying to strike a balance where she meets with the commission in private and what she says becomes part of the public record.

The White House is hoping that will quiet the critics. So far, though, still a great deal of criticism coming in, including, again, many Republicans and friends of this president who think he should reconsider.

MCEDWARDS: So is the White House saying with certainty then that whatever she tells this commission in private will be released in public? Or is that still even in question?

KING: That is still in question. The White House says it wants to have her on the public record somehow. It would like to make a deal with the commission in which at least much of what she tells the commission goes into the final report.

The problem with that is, the private meetings with the commission, especially in Dr. Rice's case, are classified sessions because they are discussing classified U.S. intelligence. So you have a team of lawyers here in the administration that would have to go back over everything she said and essentially vet it, give the commission permission to use this and this but maybe not that in terms of her conversation. And then the commission would have to agree to that.

And one of the pressures on the commission is to not be seen as taking sides in a political debate, so if they allow Dr. Rice only to talk to them in private but then put of her concerns in the public record, many Democrats will cry foul, essentially saying the commission is helping out Dr. Rice.

So the White House lawyers have some research to do and the commission has a very interesting political decision to make.

MCEDWARDS: Indeed. John King, thanks very much.

So what do the American people think about the fallout from the 9/11 Commission testimony? Who do they believe?

CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider found out and filed this report.


BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): Who do people believe, Richard Clarke or the Bush administration. And the answer is: a tie. 46 percent of Americans say they are more likely to believe the Bush administration while 44 percent are more likely to believe Clarke.

Republicans leaders have attacked Clarke's credibility.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is one thing for Mr. Clarke to dissemble in front of the media, in front of the press, but if he lied under oath to the United States Congress, it's a far, far more serious matter.

SCHNEIDER: Those attacks have rallied the GOP faithful. While 3/4 of Democrats and over 50 percent of Independents say they believe Clarke, Republicans are solidly behind their president. 83 percent.

Clarke's charges have evoked an intensely partisan response. America's are divided over President Bush. They're divided over Clarke's credibility. And they're divided over Clarke's allegations because they deal with Iraq.

CLARKE: By invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.

SCHNEIDER: Is Iraq part of the war on terrorism or an entirely separate military action, as Clarke suggests?

Americans are split along party lines.

Has the controversy damaged President Bush's standing for reelection? Three weeks ago, John Kerry was leading President Bush 52 to 44 percent among likely voters, and now Bush has pulled ahead, 51 to 47. No evidence of damage to the president.

What we do find evidence of is damage to Kerry. The Bush campaign has setout to define Kerry in the voters' minds and it looks like it's having an impact, like the charge that Kerry is wavering and indecisive.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

ANNOUNCER: Wrong on defense.

SCHNEIDER: 57 percent of Americans believe Kerry has changed positions for political reasons, like the charge that Kerry will raise taxes.

ANNOUNCER: John Kerry's economic record? Troubling.

Kerry voted to increase taxes on social security benefits.

SCHNEIDER: 58 percent believe Kerry would raise their taxes. Kerry says he will raise taxes only on people making over $200,000 a year, but everybody, including Americans making under $30,000, believe their income taxes will go up if Kerry is elected.

(on camera): Since February, when it became apparent that Kerry would be the Democratic candidate, overall opinion of John Kerry has become more negative. Growing numbers of Americans see Kerry as too liberal. The White House campaign to discredit John Kerry and Richard Clarke seems to have sharpened the partisan divide.

Bill Schneider, CNN, Washington.


MCEDWARDS: We have to take a short break. When we come back, can she or can't see? We'll speak to a constitutional law expert about whether national security advisers can testify in Congress.

Stay with us.


MCEDWARDS: Welcome back.

So what is that balance or long-standing principle that keeps Condoleezza Rice from testifying publicly?

CNN'S Wolf Blitzer takes a look.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Former President Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser Samuel Berger testified before Congress in 1997. On the agenda: allegations of illegal campaign fundraising practices in the 1996 presidential election.

Former President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski also testified before Congress in 1980. On the agenda then, allegations the president's younger brother, Billy Carter, had tried to influence the U.S. government on behalf of Libya.

Those appearances before Congress by sitting national security advisers are being cited by 9/11 Commission members as precedents for Condoleezza Rice appearing before the commission now.

She says she'd love to do that but insists there is a huge difference.

RICE: But this commission is rightly not concentrating on what happened on the day of September 11, so this is not a matter of what happened on that day, as extraordinary as it was. This is a matter of policy, and we have yet to find an example of a national security adviser, a sitting national security adviser, who has been willing to testify on matters of policy.

BLITZER: Former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger, who served under the first President Bush, agrees that's an important difference, noting that both Berger and Brzezinski testified on alleged criminal wrongdoing.

GEORGE TERWILLIGER, FMR. DEPUTY ATTNY. GEN.: The most important thing was neither was about an ongoing policy matter let alone the prosecution of an ongoing war against terrorism.

BLITZER: Former Clinton White House Special Counsel Lannie Davis sees it very differently.

LANNIE DAVIS, FMR. WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL COUNSEL: Wolf, it's deja vu all over again. We made the same arguments in the Clinton White House and ultimately we surrendered and Sandy Berger testified on the China matter, campaign finance.

Sooner or later, transparency wins out over that principle. You might as well do it earlier rather than later.

BLITZER: The White House insists critical constitutional issues are at stake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is an issue of principle. Separation of powers is of constitutional dimension.

DAVIS: Voluntarily appearing in front of a congressional committee in public does not violate separation of powers.


MCEDWARDS: And that was CNN's Wolf Blitzer reporting there.

Well, for more on this debate we are joined by Mary Cheh, a professor at George Washington University and an expert in constitutional law.

Ms. Cheh, thank you very much for being here.

How do you see it? Do you see that there is a difference between these previous cases that Wolf has just outlined in his piece and what Condoleezza Rice is talking about doing or not doing?

MARY CHEH, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV.: Well, it's a pretty thin tissue that they're slicing here, because the question about separation of powers and executive privilege is one that's murky as it is, but now they're fine tuning it, you know, just to meet the situation they have at hand.

To understand this from a legal perspective, you have to understand that the constitution doesn't speak to this at all. This is derived from the structure of the constitution about separate branches and the president has some authority that there is something like executive privilege, because there was a case involving President Nixon, when the prosecutor of crimes connected with the so-called Watergate controversy sought information from the president's aides, and the president said no, no, they may not go over and give this information in court pursuant to a subpoena because I need to have the confidential communications preserved so that my aides speak to me without reservation.

And the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court and Nixon lost, but when he lost the principle of executive privilege actually won in some sense, because the court said at least insofar as that case was concerned, that there is a presumption of privilege, but it can be overcome where the need is great.

Now they weren't talking about testifying before Congress, and there is a slightly different issue there, but at least it acknowledged the fact that there are constitutional issues.

There are never constitutional issues, though, that the president can't find a basis on which to cooperate voluntarily with Congress.

MCEDWARDS: Well, in that distinction between a criminal case versus talking about a matter of public policy, is that a valid distinction? Is that at the core of this here? Or does that depend as well?

CHEH: Well, it also depends as well, but they're clinging to something because they want to make the case apply, you know, in their circumstances. But when you're talking about appearing before Congress, Congress itself has constitutional duties.

Congress is entitled to inform itself on any matter in order to be able to legislate and know what it needs to do, and therefore Congress exercises oversight over the executive, and the only way it can exercise oversight is to be fully informed.

Now the question is whether you could force Condoleezza Rice under subpoena to testify under oath. What happens if you went to court? Well, it's not likely to happen for two reasons.

One, if it went to court, the court might say it is a political question and you all ought to decide it yourself. And even if it went to court, it's not clear that this wouldn't be a case where the president could say look, it's a national security adviser, necessarily the information is extraordinarily sensitive, and if there is any adviser with whom I need to have confidential communications that are not then exposed to the public view.

MCEDWARDS: It's my national security adviser.

CHEH: Yes. It would be my national security adviser.

But it will never get there. It will never get to court.

MCEDWARDS: Condoleezza Rice says this would be a dangerous precedent, if she went ahead and did it. Is there something in your view -- is there something that really could be damaged here?

CHEH: I don't think so. It depends on how you do it.

I'll give you an analogy. Congress passed a law called the War Powers Act that says the president has to get permission to use troops in an engagement and presidents have always said no, we don't have to get your approval. We can go ahead without you.

But on occasion, they have gone ahead and they have complied with the War Powers Resolution but they always bracket it and they say we're only doing this not because we have to but because we're cooperating.

In other words, you can preserve the principle by saying we're not agreeing with you that Condoleezza Rice could be forced to do this, but in a spirit of cooperation we're doing it that way.

MCEDWARDS: Understood. Professor Mary Cheh, thank you. Appreciate it.

We have to take a short break, but when we come back, who knew what when?

Stay with us.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The FBI had generally taken the position that there was not a significant al Qaeda presence in the United States and that was the position that they took quite honestly, Mr. Commissioner, through the end of 2000, when we left, that there was not a substantial presence and what presence was here was the sense that we have it covered.

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECY. OF DEFENSE: I knew of no intelligence during the 6-plus months leading up to September 11 that indicated terrorists would hijack commercial airliners, use them as missiles to fly into the Pentagon or the World Trade Center Towers.


MCEDWARDS: In its public hearings, the 9/11 Commission looked at what role both the Clinton and Bush administrations played in missing possible signs that al Qaeda would attack the United States.

So who's to blame?

Welcome back.

To try to help answer that question we are joined now to look at those threats and how the Clinton and Bush administration, we're joined by Jim Walsh. Mr. Walsh is a professor at Harvard University.

Mr. Walsh, thanks a lot for being here.

Let's start with the Clinton administration. How well did it handle the al Qaeda threat?

JIM WALSH, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Of course, Colleen, I think the hearings have made clear that no one has a perfect record here. But actually, the Clinton administration has a pretty good record.

Compared with other presidents in modern history, President Clinton was really forced to deal with the problem of terrorism because of the number of attacks that happened during his eight years in office. And so he had the '93 World Trade Center bombing, he had the '98 attack on the African embassies and the Cole attacks. And that led him to boost the budget for counter-terrorism, to raise the issue of counter-terrorism to a higher priority within government policymaking and actually at one point, late in the 1990's, to sign a directive that would have authorized the killing of bin Laden.

So there is quite a bit of activity during the Clinton years, but there are also some missed opportunities.

MCEDWARDS: And in terms of the missed opportunities, did they really understand the potential threat?

WALSH: No. I think what they did was they misunderstood bin Laden's role in the potential threat.

The early thinking was -- and this is in the early 1990's -- that bin Laden was simply a financier, someone who was supplying the money so that al Qaeda could run these operations around the world.

Over time, from 1993, from that first World Trade Center attack, until the late 1990's, you have a long criminal investigation in New York, and it becomes increasingly apparent that bin Laden is not only supplying money but is directing things from Afghanistan -- or first Sudan, then Afghanistan.

And so it's not until about 1997, 1998, that the government really gets a fix on how responsible bin Laden is.


WALSH: And in that period, they miss him as he goes from Sudan to Afghanistan, so that's where they had a missed opportunity. They might have been able to get him as he was leaving the one country and going to another, but they weren't prepared for that.

MCEDWARDS: OK. And so in comes the Bush administration. It must have known all of this, it must have been told all of this. What goes wrong?

WALSH: It was told, and it was told repeatedly, and it was told at nearly every level by the outgoing secretary of state, the outgoing secretary of defense and the national security adviser, who insisted on raising this to a high level with the incoming administration.

As Mr. Clarke has indicated, the Bush administration thought terrorism was an important issue, but not an urgent issue, and that's the important distinction here. They come into office and like many administrations, they come into office thinking the last guys did everything wrong, that anything Clinton did we should push it aside and we should come up with our own new policy for dealing with it.

And they came in with their own priorities, an chief among them in the area of national security was missile defense. They were much more interested in talking and acting and meeting about missile defense than they were on the problem of terrorism.

MCEDWARDS: Well, and Mr. Clarke alleges that Mr. Bush in particular was too fixated on Iraq, but isn't it a fair question, I mean, given the history of Saddam Hussein and of Iraq, wouldn't it be a fair question for an administration trying to figure out who's behind the 9/11 attacks to say, hey, does Iraq play a role here?

WALSH: Certainly, I think it would be reason for any person in America to want to step back and say who is in the possibility of culprits here, who is in this set of candidates. And certainly it makes sense to think about Saddam if only because we had had a war with him back in 1991.

But, of course, the president and his staff are not your typical Americans and they had access to both CIA and counter-terrorism testimony or expert opinion that indicated clearly that since 1993, Saddam's involvement in terrorism had actually declined, not increased, and moreover that it was really al Qaeda that everyone was focused on, and al Qaeda, it appeared, had very few links to Saddam.

And this was something gone over again and again and again within the intelligence community, and yet the answer continued to come back the same. There was no link.

Is it possible that officials, and I suppose this would apply to both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, that the officials come from a kind of Cold War mentality, when the big issue was state- sponsored terrorism, so that's what they look for? They're trained in their training and by history to think of state-sponsored terrorism, whereas al Qaeda really introduced everybody to a whole different breed, a whole different ballgame.

WALSH: Well, certainly there is a big difference. Al Qaeda was really the first ever transnational international terrorist group.

In the past, we've had plenty of experience with terrorism through the decades, but it's always been local actors attacking local targets over local grievances. In the Middle East, in Sri Lanka, in Northern Ireland.

Al Qaeda was in a category of its own. And sure, you sort of always fight the last war and you have certain preconceptions maybe because of the Cold War, but that would have changed in the 90's. In other words, once we were being attacked as we were attacked at the World Trade Center in '93, attacked by the embassy bombings and attacked by the Cole, certainly after that experience there is no excuse for not having a coldhearted and realistic view of what al Qaeda was up to.

MCEDWARDS: Jim Walsh, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

WALSH: Thank you, Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And that is this edition of INSIGHT. I'm Colleen McEdwards. The news continues on CNN.



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