Commission on 9/11 held the cards but folded


WASHINGTON - That was some deal the 9/11 commission struck with President Bush to gain the on-the-record, public testimony of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

If the commission had been playing poker with the president, it would have been the functional equivalent of holding a full house and folding your hand to a pair of deuces.

The price the 9/11 panel paid for Ms. Rice's oath-taking appearance was ludicrous. It accepted the condition of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales that it agree "in writing that it will not request additional public testimony from any White House official, including Dr. Rice."

What if she says something then or later that calls into serious question something said, before the commission, on TV or in a newspaper interview by any other White House official? The commission won't be able to explore that contradiction or conflict?

The commission also had to agree to another ridiculous condition. In return for the president lifting the one-hour time limit he earlier had placed on meeting in private with only the chairman and vice chairman, the full 10-member panel will get to hear Mr. Bush, but together with Vice President Dick Cheney, rather than separately.

Can you imagine Sam Waterston's character on Law and Order agreeing to let a pair of crime suspects or witnesses get away with that kind of dodge? The tough district attorney would never allow such an arrangement that would make it easy for them to keep their stories straight in all details.

While the commission has for the most part functioned internally in a nonpartisan manner, the fight in which it found itself with the White House over the conditions of the appearances of Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice was adversarial from the start.

The president opposed the creation of the special commission. Once it was under way, he resisted demands for swift and thorough commission access to documents and witnesses needed to learn why the 9/11 attacks happened and what was and wasn't done to avert them.

The administration, by dragging its feet and then making a federal case out of the availability of Ms. Rice as a public witness, merely fed a public impression that it was less than forthcoming and had something to hide. Only when the open testimony of former White House counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke dramatically challenged the president's performance as an antiterrorist warrior in the days before 9/11 - and afterward, by charging that his invasion of Iraq undercut the larger war on terror - did the president yield on Ms. Rice.

At that point, because the administration's political strategists recognized that attacking Mr. Clarke's credibility was only intensifying and prolonging the spotlight blazing on the 9/11 hearings, the White House finally moved to strike the broader deal.

The White House also included a stipulation that the panel agree that Ms. Rice's testimony "does not set any precedent for future commission requests" for appearances of White House officials. This agreement was a transparent cover for the president's retreat from his argument that testimony by a key presidential staff adviser would violate executive privilege or executive-legislative branch separation.

Stipulating that the deal was not to be taken as a precedent was amusingly reminiscent of the Supreme Court ruling on the 2000 presidential election that favored Mr. Bush. The court noted in its convoluted Florida decision on a state political matter that "our consideration is limited to the present circumstances" and was not to be taken as a guide for future decisions.

This time, the White House realized it needed to cut its losses over Ms. Rice's holdout and the Bush and Cheney limits. But the 9/11 commission was holding the high cards. It didn't have to have cut the unfavorable deal it settled for - getting Ms. Rice in public but a George-and-Dick Show in private.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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