WASHINGTON - The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks said yesterday that it will seek public testimony from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about intelligence agency warnings they might have received before the attacks, a move that could provoke a new showdown between the panel and the White House.
The panel said a similar request for public testimony was being made to former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as senior Bush administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser; George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence; Attorney General John Ashcroft, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The White House declined to say whether Bush or Cheney would submit to questioning before the commission - either at public hearings or in private.
In a television interview Sunday, Bush promised to cooperate with the 10-member bipartisan commission. But when asked whether he would submit to questioning, the president said, "Perhaps, perhaps."
After the commission's announcement yesterday that it would seek Bush's testimony, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters the request was among the "issues that we'll continue to discuss with the commission."
The panel's request leaves Bush with an uncomfortable choice: testify before the commission and answer a host of potentially embarrassing questions about intelligence and law enforcement in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, or refuse to testify, giving Democrats election-year ammunition to argue that the White House is stonewalling the inquiry.
Bush could be expected to be questioned closely about an Oval Office intelligence briefing in August 2001, which suggested that al-Qaida might be planning terrorist strikes using commercial airplanes. The White House has refused to make the briefing papers public but has confirmed news reports of their existence.
The commission's vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said that testimony from Bush and Cheney, as well as from Clinton and Gore, was "important to us in trying to assess the flow of information relating to terrorist activity going into the highest levels of both administrations."
"We're interested in knowing their recollection of events," Hamilton said, adding that the commission had already "initiated contacts or [was] in the processing of initiating contacts with the two presidents and the two vice presidents, and I believe we are making progress in setting up meetings with them."
A spokesman for Clinton declined to say whether the former president would testify.
"President Clinton supports the work of the 9/11 commission and has been cooperating with it," the former president's office in New York said in a statement. "However, any questions regarding specific requests should be directed to the commission."
Gore said in a statement issued in Washington that he was willing to answer questions from the panel, although it was not clear whether he was willing to testify in public.