Bush Will Talk the Most at 9/11 Hearing, Aides Say
President Bush plans to do most of the talking when he and Vice President Dick Cheney meet behind closed doors Thursday with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, White House officials said Tuesday.
Bush has been preparing for the appearance by reviewing files from the months before the attacks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The president also has consulted with national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and others.
The meeting will not be recorded or transcribed, the White House said.
The White House insistence that Bush and Cheney appear together has prompted complaints from members of the commission, exposed the White House to criticism from Democrats and served as fodder for late-night television comics.
“It matters to me only because it reduces the amount of time we will have.” said Democratic commission member Bob Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska.
“It cuts it in half.”
At a contentious news briefing Tuesday, McClellan rejected suggestions that by appearing together, Bush and Cheney would be exposing themselves to criticism and even ridicule.
“That’s not the way you should be looking at this,” McClellan said. “This is about helping the commission piece together all the information they have already been provided access to, and helping them complete their important work.”
Other White House officials have sought to explain the requirement by saying that they expect the panel to focus on the actions of the White House on Sept. 11. Bush and Cheney were in separate locations throughout much of that day, White House officials say, and having them appear together will help the commission assemble a complete chronology.
Analysts said the administration appeared to have decided that it would rather face exposure to sniping over the joint appearance than risk providing conflicting answers before a panel that had already raised questions about the administration’s record on terrorism.
Alan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, said the joint appearance could enhance Cheney’s image as “the wizard behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” while diminishing Bush’s persona as “the man in charge, in control of the facts and the mission.”
Lichtman suggested two possible reasons for the joint appearance. One is to make sure that Bush and Cheney’s stories square with each other, he said. “The last thing they’d want is having someone like you quoting the vice president against the president,” he said.
“No. 2, if it proves necessary, the president can defer to Dick Cheney if he doesn’t want to answer something himself -- something that maybe he thinks is politically sensitive, something that he may not want on the record,” Lichtman said. “By being there, Cheney gives him a chance of not going on record without being accused of being not responsive.”
White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales also is expected to attend the session.
Members of the commission said they intended to ask about specific events the day of the attacks, but they were more interested in hearing about what Bush was doing to protect the country in the months before the attacks, when a spike in intelligence reporting warned that Al Qaeda was planning “spectacular” strikes.
“I’d like to learn what they did in the summer of 2001,” said Kerrey. He rejected frequent statements by Bush that he would have acted if he had gotten better intelligence with specific data pointing to the attacks.
“It won’t work to say that if somebody had told us that 19 Middle Eastern men under the age of 35 were going to hijack airplanes ... we’d have moved heaven and earth to stop them,” Kerrey said. “The facts are: We knew Al Qaeda was in the United States; we knew they were part of an Islamic army; we knew they were capable of carrying out sophisticated attacks and that hijackings were among the things they were considering.”
Rice and others who have testified before the commission have insisted that the administration alerted the FBI and other agencies, and that the White House was piecing together a comprehensive plan to target Al Qaeda when the attacks occurred.
But the panel also has heard from witnesses, including former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, that the Bush administration ignored the terrorist threat to focus on other matters, including missile defense.
Former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with the commission in separate sessions this month. Their meetings also were private. But a commission spokesman, confirming a news report Tuesday by CBS, said the Clinton and Gore testimony had been taped and that a transcript would be produced for the commission’s use, although not for public release.
Bush’s agreement to meet with all 10 members of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission is the latest reversal by the White House. Initially, Bush said he would meet only with the chairman and vice chairman of the panel, and only for an hour. White House officials now suggest that there is no firm time limit for the meeting, and McClellan said Tuesday that “the president will answer whatever questions they may have.”
The White House also has backed down from positions in which it opposed creation of the panel, opposed allowing Rice to testify in public and opposed granting the commission a two-month extension. The stakes are significant for the White House because the commission is expected to complete its final report in late July, in the midst of the presidential campaign.
McClellan emphasized that it was highly unusual for a president to appear before any congressionally created panel. He said the White House cooperation had been “unprecedented,” granting the commission access to hundreds of witnesses and millions of documents.
Bush has deflected questions about why he and Cheney insisted on appearing together.
When asked about the arrangement at a recent news conference, Bush replied: “It’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.”
Democrats have seized on the issue. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has said it was embarrassing that Bush was refusing to meet with the commission “without holding the hand of the vice president.”
And late-night comics have had a field day. “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno joked that “to make sure Bush is really answering, [the commission is] going to make Cheney drink a glass of water while he talks.”
Thomas H. Kean, the GOP chairman of the bipartisan commission and former governor of New Jersey, playfully flipped the premise on its head when asked about the matter recently.
The White House demand that Bush and Cheney appear together was acceptable in exchange for their agreement to meet with the full panel, Kean said, adding, “We recognize that Mr. Bush may help Mr. Cheney with some of the answers.”