US President George W. Bush reversed course under heavy pressure on Tuesday and agreed to let National Security Adviser Condo-leezza Rice give sworn public testimony before the Sept. 11 commission.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also agreed to meet together privately with the full panel, abandoning their earlier insistence that they would meet only with the commission's chairman and vice chairman.
Rice was likely to testify toward the end of next week, with Bush and Cheney following sometime after that, a senior administration official said.
The dramatic about-face came in a White House letter to the panel that said Rice would appear in public if it was agreed it would not set a precedent under the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers.
Bush's reversal may help the White House rebut suggestions that it has something to hide. But it also raises the political stakes and puts heavy pressure on Rice.
She is sure to be asked -- in public and under oath -- not only about her efforts to discredit former Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, but about her statements that seem to contradict those of other members of the administration.
For instance, her contention that the administration had a strategy before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for military operations against al-Qaeda clearly disputes Clarke's claim that it did not. But it also appears to be at odds with testimony by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Rice's comments in TV interviews also appear to undercut Cheney's suggestion that Clarke was "out of the loop."
And her description of Bush's comments on a possible Iraq link in a Situation Room discussion with Clarke on the day after the attacks followed comments by White House spokesman Scott McClellan that the president had no recollection of such a meeting or conversation.
Rice will be on the hot seat as she faces questions from a panel seeking to resolve these and other contradictions. "We have to explore those differences," the panel's Republican chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, said on Tuesday.
As for her appearance, the administration appeared to have few realistic options but to do a dramatic about face and allow Rice to give sworn testimony to the panel.
"When you're in a hole, you should stop digging," said Rep-resentative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who is a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
The furor caused by Clarke's suggestion that Bush had mis-managed the war on terror showed no signs of abating, despite a weeklong administration counteroffensive.
"They had no choice" but to let Rice testify in public, said Alan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.
"They could not continue on the present line because it made them look like they had something to hide. And the fine distinctions on separation of powers were lost on the public and were debatable on their face," he said.
The criticism only intensified as Rice made herself widely available for media interviews -- to the point where Kean said that the administration had "shot itself in the foot" by not letting her testify.
"I think it's the right decision," said Sandy Berger, who was former president Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "It's not the end of the road, obviously. Her testimony will obviously add to the picture the American people have. It can be then contrasted or compared to any other testimony that may or may not be consistent."
The policy reversal came as polls suggested declining public approval of Bush's handling of the war on terror. In two polls out this week, Bush slipped from the mid 60s on handling terrorism to the high 50s, eroding his strength on the issue that was both the backbone of his public support and the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.
Rice, a former Stanford University professor and provost who is a veteran of the first Bush administration, has been on the spot before over disputed national security claims.
In September 2002, she suggested that aluminum tubes seized en route to Iraq were "only suited for nuclear weapons programs." Intelligence officials said they were more likely intended for anti-aircraft rockets.
Last July, during the president's trip to Africa, Rice told reporters that Bush's State of the Union message never would have included a later-debunked claim that Iraq was shopping for uranium in Africa "if we had known what we know now." She hinted at the time that CIA Director George Tenet was to blame for the lapse.
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