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Jewish World Review April 5, 2004 / 14 Nissan, 5764

Roger Simon

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Two for the price of one | Doing the right thing for the wrong reason gets you points in this town, because so rarely is the right thing done at all.

So everybody is now praising the Bush administration for allowing National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify under oath and in public before the Sept. 11 Commission.

For months, the White House has refused to allow this, citing a sacred and inviolable Constitutional principle: the separation of powers.

Rice could not testify, the White House insisted, because unlike cabinet members whom Congress approves, she is a White House staff member and has no responsibilities to the legislative branch.

For that branch to demand her appearance in public and under oath (she had already testified in private and not under oath before the commission) would violate the separation of the executive and legislative branches.

So even though Rice blanketed the airwaves giving her version of events, which conflicted with the version presented by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, she would not do so in front of the commission.

But what happened this week? Why did the White House change its mind? Well, one unnamed White House source told a reporter that "Bush advisers concluded that Rice can effectively counter Clarke in a high-profile public forum. The official also said polls showing Bush leading Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, made this an opportune time to yield to the commission's demands."

Constitutional principle? Oh, yeah, that. Well, we can forget about that.

The Sept. 11 Commission was very happy with this, but still had one more demand: That George Bush and Dick Cheney face questioning by the entire commission. (The White House had wanted only the chair and vice chair to do the questioning.) The session would be closed, the two men would not be under oath, and no transcript would be made, which was a pretty sweet deal for the White House, when you think about it.

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The White House finally agreed to questioning by the entire commission, but only after extracting a very interesting but little commented-upon concession: The White House insisted that Bush and Cheney be questioned together and not separately like all other witnesses.

Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, said of that agreement on Wednesday, "It's curious."

It's very curious. Does Cheney have to be in the room with Bush to make sure Bush does not screw up again like when he told Bob Woodward in Woodward's 2002 book "Bush at War" that al Qaeda was not his focus before Sept. 11? "I was not on point," Bush told the Washington Post reporter. "I didn't feel a sense of urgency."

And if Bush starts going down that road with the commission, is Cheney supposed to kick him under the table?

At a press conference announcing the deal with the White House, Commission Chairman Tom Kean had the following exchange with a reporter:

QUESTION: "Can you say why you would agree to have the vice president and the president testify at the same time? To someone else, it might be to allow, you know, Mr. Cheney to help Mr. Bush with the answers. And I'm just confused why you would allow them to go together. It seems like it compromises your investigation to have them answer questions at the same time."

KEAN: "Well, we recognize that Mr. Bush may help Mr. Cheney with some of the answers. (LAUGHTER) But it was the suggestion of the White House."

No kidding it was at the suggestion of the White House. The White House's first rule is that you never want the president facing questions alone. He could say anything. Like the truth.

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