President Bush said he “answered every question” put to him by the Sept. 11 commission when he and Vice President Dick Cheney met with 10 commissioners for just over three hours Thursday in a session that apparently included laughter, an expression of the president's disappointment with Justice Department treatment of one panel member, and a rebuke of his attorney general.
Bush appeared before reporters shortly after the joint testimony in the Oval Office to say the session was "wide-ranging, important ... it was just a good discussion."
While he declined to say what the questions focused on, Bush said “I was never advised by my counsel not to answer anything. I answered every question they asked.” Commissioners "had a lot of good questions," he added. "I enjoyed it."
The president said he felt the testimony “helped them understand how I think and how I run the White House.”
Asked about critics who claim he and the vice president wanted to testify together in order to present the same story, the president responded: “Look, if we had something to hide we wouldn't have met with them in the first place.”
“It was important for them to see our body language, how we work together,” he added.
Ashcroft, Justice rebuked
In opening remarks before commissioners began their inquiry, Bush told commission members he was disappointed with the Justice Department and its treatment of Jamie Gorelick, a commission member and a former Justice Department official.
NBC's David Gregory reported that Bush specifically criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft in connection with Gorelick's treatment. The president told commissioners he did not approve of the “fingerpointing.”
On Wednesday the Justice Department released internal documents on its official Web site; critics of Gorelick have said the documents raise questions about her serving on the commission. Despite the White House's admonishment of Justice, NBC's Pete Williams reported Thursday that the memos remain on the Justice Department's Web site.
Some Republican senators have argued that the commission's work won't be done until they interview Gorelick, whom they accuse of authorizing the “wall” between intelligence and law enforcement agencies some have said may have contributed to a climate that made the Sept. 11 attacks possible.
Panel: 'Forthcoming, candid' testimony
The commission, for its part, thanked the president and vice president in a statement, adding that they were "forthcoming and candid" in their testimony. "The information they provided will be of great assistance to the commission as it completes its final report."
Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission, said he was satisfied the panel had enough time to ask questions and that nothing was lost from having a joint meeting. “It was a very cordial meeting,” he said afterward. “Everyone got to ask his or her questions of the president and vice president. I’m not going to characterize the substance.”
Republican Jim Thompson said the questions included everything “across the board” that had been in public hearings. “The president was asked the vast majority of the questions and he answered them. There was no question the president or vice president did not answer.”
Punctuated by laughter
Laughter erupted in the Oval Office from time to time, Thompson said. “The president is a bit of a tease ... There were no tense moments. I thought the president gave a five-star performance. I wish the American people could have seen it.”
Before the extraordinary closed-door session, which lasted three hours and 10 minutes, Republican commissioner Slade Gorton made clear the questions would center on “pre 9/11 attitudes and policies ... and what took place on 9/11 in terms of response and what each of them did.”
The president faced the same challenge as he does on the campaign trail: convincing Americans that he responded appropriately to an intelligence system that CIA Director George Tenet said was “blinking red” with warnings of a terrorist strike.
The commission had originally sought separate testimony from the president and vice president. But the White House later insisted they would appear together, prompting critics to suggest that the White House wanted to make sure they kept their story straight.
White House communications advisor Dan Bartlett told NBC News it is "silly to suggest" that was the reason. Instead, administration officials said the joint session was desirable because Bush and Cheney were in separate locations on Sept. 11. 2001. The leaders were in constant contact and a joint appearance would provide the most comprehensive accounting of the day’s events, they said.
Their testimony was not under oath, but White House press secretary Scott McClellan said they would "tell it exactly how it happened." He also noted that he expected the president, not Cheney, to do most of the talking.
Memo, Iraq may be focuses
Former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke earlier told the commission that the White House did not heed his warnings that al-Qaida was an urgent threat. Members of the commission were expected to have grilled the president about an intelligence memo from Aug. 6, 2001, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
The president has insisted the document had "nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America — well, we knew that."
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly testified that the memo was a "historical" statement rather than any specific warning of an attack.
Another issue expected to come up was Iraq. The president has been accused of being distracted by Saddam Hussein. In newly released books, Clarke and reporter Bob Woodward separately contend that Bush and Cheney were fixated on finding an Iraqi link to the attacks. The administration has denied it.
According to a commission statement, Tenet told the panel earlier that in his world in 2001 “the system was blinking red,” and by late July it could not have been any worse.
“Tenet told us he felt that President Bush and other officials grasped the urgency of what they were being told,” the statement said.
White House lawyer present
The private session began around 9:30 a.m. ET at the White House with the 10 members of the commission — five Republicans and five Democrats. Bush and Cheney were joined by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and two members of his staff. No reporters or photographers were allowed to watch any part of the session.
Gonzales was there to make sure that the ground rules of the meeting were followed, offer legal advice, if requested, and interject himself into the discussion to protect the president and vice president, said John Dean, former White House counsel for President Nixon.
“I think it’s highly unusual, under the circumstances of an informal meeting like this, to bring your lawyer with you,” Dean said. “It escalates the formality of an informal proceeding.”
Under the White House conditions, the testimony was not recorded, nor was a stenographer present to make a formal transcript. Rather, commission members were allowed to take detailed notes during the meeting.
That is different from the commission's interviews with former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, which a commission member said were recorded.
McClellan said the session was not officially transcribed because the White House considered it a "private meeting" in which highly classified information would be discussed.
"Let's keep in mind that it is extraordinary for a sitting president of the United States to sit down with a legislatively created commission," said McClellan.
The effect of Bush and Cheney’s highly classified Q&A session might not be known until the panel releases its final report, which is due out July 26, about three months before the fall presidential election.
“It’s very important because of the timing, just before the election,” said James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “He [Bush] is very strong in the polls on homeland security, and this may undermine it a little bit.”
The political stakes would have been even higher, though, if the meeting were televised like the commission’s recent hearings, said Thomas Mann, an analyst at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
“The president is basically placing his re-election on the argument that he is the commander in chief of the war on terrorism,” Mann said. “Anything that calls that into question is potentially damaging. If it were public, he’d be out there with a message, pre-scripted.”
Bush, who initially opposed creation of the independent commission, had earlier insisted he would meet only with the panel’s chairman and vice chairman for just one hour.
However, he has been careful to praise the panel’s work.
A new Harris Poll found that slightly more people blamed President Bill Clinton, 54 percent, than blamed Bush, 48 percent, for not doing enough to prevent the 9/11 attacks.
But 62 percent believed the Bush administration was warned by intelligence reports “about possible terrorist attacks in this country,” the poll found.
Families want answers
Jonathan Hakala, a spokesman for an advocacy group called Team Twin Towers and a former tenant of the World Trade Center, said he hoped Bush and Cheney would help move the panel’s work forward in a bipartisan way.
Derrill Bodley, whose daughter, Deora, was killed on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, said he did not like Bush and Cheney appearing together “because it’s pretty clear that I don’t think the president is willing to speak on his own without the vice president there.
The fact that Bush and Cheney appeared together was a source of displeasure for Democrats.
“The president’s insistence that the vice president testify with him before the 9/11 commission is like having your tutor sit next to you during your final exam,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Bob McIlvaine, whose son died in the World Trade Center attacks, said he did not expect anything new out of Bush and Cheney, and he blames the administration for failing to heed pre-Sept. 11 warnings.
“I firmly believe they put it on the back burners ... and it doesn’t seem to bother people,” he said. “This is what really upsets me.”