`Very cordial' session for Bush and 9/11 panel

He and Cheney answer every question asked, president indicates

April 30, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush said he and Vice President Dick Cheney answered every question they were asked when they met privately yesterday for more than three hours with the commission looking into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The president described it as a "very cordial conversation."

"I came away [feeling] good about the session," Bush said at a brief Rose Garden news conference afterward, "because I wanted them to know how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we deal with threats."

Bush and Cheney did not speak under oath, and, at the president's insistence, the session was private, was not tape-recorded and produced no transcript. Neither the commission members nor Bush would publicly detail the substance of the president's answers.

But officials close to the commission said the topics included how urgently Bush and his aides responded to terrorist warning signs in the months before Sept. 11, what they did on the day of the attacks and how they reacted to a classified briefing Aug. 6, 2001. That briefing warned that al-Qaida might be planning an attack inside the United States and seemed interested in hijacking airplanes.

The group also discussed what steps Bush thinks would best protect the nation from a future attack and possible recommendations the commission might make when it releases its final report this summer.

When asked by a reporter if he had insisted on being interviewed with Cheney to "keep your stories straight," Bush said, "If we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place."

Two members of the 10-person commission - former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the vice chairman, and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, both Democrats - unexpectedly left the meeting early.

A spokesman for Hamilton said he had previously arranged to play host to the prime minister of Canada at a speaking engagement at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, of which Hamilton is director.

Kerrey, in a brief statement, said he had "a previously scheduled meeting" on Capitol Hill with Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. Kerrey's spokesman said the White House was aware of the conflict before the Oval Office session began yesterday.

When Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, publicly testified recently to the panel, several commissioners subjected her to combative questioning. But one commission member, John R. Lehman, a Republican former Navy secretary, said there were no tense moments or heated questioning yesterday.

"There were some very good exchanges," Lehman said, "and certainly nobody pulled any questions because it might be deemed too aggressive. Nobody was impolite."

Lehman said the meeting did not end until the members had exhausted their questions, and he said the session provided even a few light moments.

One Democratic commissioner, Timothy J. Roemer, told CNN that the members were free to ask what they wanted, and that the president was in "good humor."

"I felt comfortable with a host of wide-ranging questions," Roemer said. "He was very forthcoming and candid."

In addition to the commission members and Bush and Cheney, the session included only the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, two members of his staff and Philip D. Zelikow, the commission's executive director. Gonzales' staffers and Zelikow took notes.

The White House had resisted the creation of the Sept. 11 commission and had initially refused to make Bush available for questioning. The president agreed to yesterday's session only after being assured that his comments would be neither under oath nor recorded. By contrast, the commission held earlier private sessions with former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore that were recorded.

Bush also insisted that he and Cheney jointly meet with the commission, rather than having the members question them separately. That decision drew criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who accused the president and vice president of trying to make sure their responses did not deviate from one another.

Bush denied that that was the case.

"I think it was important for them to see our body language, as well, how we work together," he said.

Still, Bush set a precedent yesterday. In the few cases when sitting presidents have come before an independent body, as when President Ronald Reagan met with the commission investigating the Iran-contra affair, none has done so with his vice president at his side.

The extent of the president's openness with the commission could be a sensitive issue as he heads toward the heart of his re-election campaign this summer, when the panel is expected to release its report, political analysts said.

"This is a very political presidency, and the president has made the terrorist attacks a major portion of his re-election campaign," said Paul S. Herrnson, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

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