WASHINGTON — President Bush has agreed to meet privately with the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and is considering doing so under oath, U.S. officials told NBC News on Friday night.
The commission is also seeking private meetings and public testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. Cheney has not said whether he will accept the invitations, while Clinton and Gore have pledged to cooperate.
Commissioners have complained that their work has been delayed repeatedly because of disputes with the administration over access to documents and witnesses.
Earlier this week, the White House agreed to give the panel greater access to classified intelligence briefings after some commissioners threatened a subpoena. The panel said afterward that the material raised new questions that had prompted it to seek more interviews with officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The White House issued a statement later confirming that Bush would meet with the panel but ruling out any public testimony. “We believe the President can provide all the requested information in the private meeting, and there is no need for any additional testimony,” it said.
White House officials were still working out details of the meeting, including whether the president would appear under oath, officials told NBC’s David Gregory. Regardless, they said, he intended to tell the entire truth about possible warnings he might have received from U.S. intelligence sources before the attacks, which killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Panel says it may have to cut hearings
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the bipartisan commission, said Friday that the panel could be forced to pare its inquiries if Congress did not give it more time. The panel faces a deadline of May 27, but it has asked for at least a two-month extension. Bush last week reversed course and said he favored more time, too, but House Republican leaders remain opposed.
The panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, planned 10 more public meetings but now says it would have time for only seven. Commissioners also would be forced to do without some follow-up interviews with other officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations, Kean said.
“If it is evident in the next month that May 27 is our deadline, there are things we will not be able to do in the areas of intelligence,” Kean said. That area is particularly complex and time-consuming, he said.
“There are many paths to follow, including how intelligence was used, where it came from and what was known by the FBI, CIA and National Security Council,” he said. A May 27 deadline would force the panel to put out a report “that we, as commissioners, would feel very frustrated by.”
Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have said better intelligence might have helped prevent the attacks. Last week, Bush announced that he would form a separate investigative panel to examine prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Legislation is pending in the House and the Senate that would extend the Sept. 11 panel’s deadline to Jan. 10, 2005, a date that supporters say would limit the influence of election-year politics.
But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., opposes any extension, citing a need to quickly have the panel’s recommendations on how to improve the nation’s security.
“The worst thing that can happen to this commission is that the report gets released in the middle of the presidential campaign and then it becomes a political football,” said John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert. “Every commission created has always asked for more time. We need the recommendations as soon as possible.”
NBC’s David Gregory, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.