Bush fate may hinge on his 9/11 testimony

President and Cheney to appear before panel behind close doors today

April 29, 2004|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Their words will neither be transcribed nor broadcast to the nation, but the joint appearance by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could well reverberate into the fall election.

When Bush and Cheney testify behind closed doors in the White House today about the days leading up to the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, they will not be under oath. Still, their responses will be included in the commission's report, due in late July, that seeks to answer how the attacks took place and whether they could have been prevented.

"I look forward to giving the commissioners a chance to question both of us," Bush said yesterday during an appearance with Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson. "It will be a good opportunity for people to help write a report that hopefully will help future presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country."

Future presidents aside, political strategists and historians said, it is the current president who will be on the line today with the 10-member bipartisan commission that Bush and Cheney had once refused to meet with. And it is the current president, building his re-election campaign around his leadership in the war on terrorism, who could have to deal with any political fallout from the Sept. 11 panel's report.

If Bush's testimony contradicts National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice or other witnesses - or if he stumbles in any way - it could raise concerns about how the administration performed before and since the terrorist strike. As it is, Bush's insistence on appearing alongside Cheney has given critics an opening to deride his reliance on the vice president.

"He's dragged his feet all along with respect to this, the creation of the commission and his willingness to talk," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. "I'm sure the president would like to see this go away. But whether it does depends on what information is gained and shared for the commissioners."

The joint interview today is the culmination of months of negotiation between Bush and the commission. At the insistence of the White House, the Oval Office session will not be transcribed or taped. Handwritten notes by a commission aide and two members of the president's legal team will be the only record of the meeting.

To prepare for his historic appearance, aides said, Bush has spent considerable time reviewing documents with Rice, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and legal counsel Alberto Gonzales. Cheney also spent time refreshing his memory, aides said, for an interview that could last several hours.

One point that commission members are expected to center their inquiry around is a classified briefing Bush received Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." The 470-word document advised Bush of surveillance around federal buildings in New York, and it said al-Qaida wanted to "follow the example" of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

After Rice testified before the commission this month, the White House declassified the briefing. Later, Bush said that nothing in the report indicated America was on the verge of a terrorist strike.

The commission also is trying to gauge how much attention the administration paid to terrorism in the months after Bush took office in January 2001 and how seriously the president and vice president took intelligence warnings that al-Qaida seemed interested in hijacking a plane in the U.S.

"We're all working together to learn the lessons of Sept. 11," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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