The grainy photograph rolled off the fax machine at the White House counsel’s office last Monday morning, along with a scribbled note that smacked of blackmail. If the White House didn’t allow national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify in public before the 9/11 commission, it read, “This will be all over Washington in 24 hours.”

The photo, from a Nov. 22, 1945, New York Times story, showed Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, appearing before a special congressional panel investigating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

PRESIDENT’S CHIEF OF STAFF TESTIFIES read the headline over the snapshot of Leahy’s very public testimony. The point was clear: the White House could no longer get away with the claim that Rice’s appearance would be a profound breach of precedent.

The fax was the work of Philip Zelikow, the commission’s executive director, a University of Virginia historian who had been poring over records of the Pearl Harbor inquiries for months. Those probes, Zelikow believes, are the clearest blueprint for the 9/11 panel’s work. “This is what happens when you hire historians,” joked commission chairman Thomas Kean.

A White House aide says it is “fatuous” to say the Leahy photo forced the White House to capitulate. But after battling with the panel for nearly a year over documents and testimony, the White House finally relented and said Rice would testify publicly under oath. As part of the deal, President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who until last week insisted they would testify only before the panel’s leaders, also agreed to appear. Now they will give unsworn testimony, together, before the full panel. Bush realized the controversy was a costly distraction that needed to end, and fast. GOP leaders on Capitol Hill and the president’s political aides, says one commissioner, “just wanted this to go away.”

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