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Sept. 11 Panel Requests Info From Bush, Cheney, Clinton

By Philip Shenon

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks said Thursday it would seek public testimony from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about intelligence agency warnings that 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 broadcast Sunday, Bush promised to cooperate with the 10-member bipartisan commission. But when asked if he would submit to questioning, the president said, “Perhaps, perhaps.”

After the commission’s announcement on Thursday that it would seek Bush’s testimony, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters that 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: between testifying before the commission and answering a host of potentially embarrassing questions about intelligence and law-enforcement in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, or refusing to testify, providing Democrats with election-year rhetorical 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 that he received in August 2001 that 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 about 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 in a telephone interview, adding that the commission had already “initiated contacts or was in the process 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 if the former president would testify before the panel.

“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 if he was willing to testify in public: “The commission has invited me to meet with them in private, and I look forward to being of assistance.”

Hamilton would not predict what the commission would do if Bush, Cheney and their immediate predecessors refused to answer questions from the panel -- specifically, whether the commission would consider subpoenas to try to compel testimony from any of the four men.

“We’re a little too early in the process,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to speculate about what the options would be. I guess historically that would break new ground.”

This week, the commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, debated whether to use its subpoena power to gain access to the daily intelligence digests that were presented to Bush in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The panel decided against the subpoena after the White House agreed to allow all 10 members of the commission to review a summary of the documents.

There is precedent for presidents to provide testimony while in office -- but almost always in criminal investigations. For instance, Clinton provided sworn testimony to the independent counsel that investigated the Whitewater matter, and he was questioned under oath in 1998 in a sexual misconduct lawsuit.

The commission, which is led by Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, has had a strained relationship with the White House since its creation, which was initially opposed by Bush.