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Sept. 11: Unveiling the truth through public testimony

As the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington, D.C., a contentious air of partisanship surrounds the 9/11 Commission less than four months before its final report is due.

Last week, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke testified that the Bush administration never made fighting al-Qaida a priority and attempted to substantiate the Sept. 11 attacks as possible grounds for an invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration quickly dispatched officials to the airwaves, seeking to discredit Clarke’s testimony and cite personal motivations for his claims. Curiously absent from the discourse, until now, has been public testimony under oath by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

While the Bush administration has yielded to the clamor for Rice to testify publicly, it remains to be seen if administration officials will explain why they were previously so opposed to such an idea.

Clarke, who held prominent counterterrorism positions under four Republican and Democratic administrations, has provided countless hours of testimony. With Rice now testifying publicly, there should be no reason to expect anything but more of the same, including possibly setting the record straight as far as Clarke’s allegations.

Rice, as committee chairman and former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean has indicated, should testify under oath as Clarke did. Perhaps the Bush administration would have felt the need to dutifully comply sooner, unless of course there is a legitimate fire behind Clarke’s smoke.

In not allowing Rice to testify, the Bush administration evoked executive privilege, as indicated by the White House Counsel. She had even argued on CBS’s 60 Minutes that the reason behind her not being able to testify publicly is “a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress.”

To the contrary, numerous administration officials over the years have testified, including Sandy Berger, as sitting National Security Adviser under the Clinton administration. In addition, claiming that President Bush’s closest advisers should be protected because they provide confidential advice to the president doesn’t carry much weight if those same advisers are seen in television interviews handling damage control after Clarke’s testimony.

Adding to the uproar over Rice’s previous denial to speak publicly is the fact that President Bush originally stated he would only answer questions from the chairman and co-chairman of the commission privately for one hour. As part of Tuesday’s White House concession, the president will now meet privately for an indeterminate time — as Rice indicated previously — before the entire commission.

It is interesting that Rice said on NBC’s Meet the Press that she hoped the commission would be “judicious with (the president’s) time.” I am remiss to come up with a better use of the president’s time than to determine what counterterrorism measures the executive branch adopted before and after Sept. 11.

In the end, the families of every Sept. 11 victim deserve a public account of executive branch counterterrorism efforts. For many families, the closure they seek could be accomplished through the commission’s bipartisan report if it were to offer substantive evidence that lessons learned may prevent future terrorist activity.

Rather than diminishing the issue to something as asinine as partisan wrangling, shouldn’t the families be told the honest truth about what occurred in the innermost levels of our government? If something was overlooked, or a bureaucratic hurdle prevented acting on intelligence, the American public should be told.

A Pew Research Poll released Monday indicated that the current disputed testimony at the 9/11 Commission has not affected Bush’s poll numbers, but the administration flip-flop on the issue could adversely affect his re-election efforts down the road. With a campaign that touts its tough stance on terror, the Bush administration should be parading officials in front of the commission to solidify the claim that the president has done everything in his power to keep America safe throughout his tenure.

No greater evidence of this claim could be shown than if the administration would have originally allowed the National Security Adviser to testify publicly and under oath in response to the recent claims made by Richard Clarke.

Aaron Hill is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.