Hoping to shape history's judgment, President Bush told the Sept. 11 commission Thursday his administration tried to protect America from terrorists as warnings grew before the devastating attack of 2001.
Members pressed him on his response to a controversial memo that raised the threat of plane hijackings and attacks with explosives.
"I answered every question they asked," Bush said after he and Vice President Dick Cheney met with the 10-member commission for three hours in the Oval Office. Presidential scholars called the session unprecedented.
Some of Bush's answers were "surprising" and "new," said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member, but he declined to give details. On Bush's demand, the questioning was done behind closed doors without a transcriber to make an official record, and the president refused to discuss the substance of the discussions.
Sitting in high-back chairs in front of the fireplace, Bush and Cheney faced questions about the lack of a U.S. military response after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors, the administration's response to Sept. 11 and the presidential memo that Bush received a month before the attacks warning that Osama bin Laden was preparing to strike, commission members said.
It was Bush who responded to most of the questions, officials said. Cheney spoke only when Bush turned to him about details he didn't know, according to one participant.
Charged with investigating the Sept. 11 hijackings and recommending steps to prevent future attacks, the commission already has documented a string of urgent warnings communicated to the highest levels of government before Sept. 11. Thursday's meeting could reverberate into the November elections as the commission reports in late July on intelligence failures and missed signals before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Bush has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign.
Unlike the commission's televised hearings where tempers sometimes flared, there were no tense moments in the Oval Office, said former Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican commission member. He called Bush "a bit of a tease" and said there was laughter at times.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member and an aggressive questioner at earlier sessions, said, "It was a very cordial meeting" and everyone got to ask questions.
Chairman Thomas Kean, a Republican former New Jersey governor, said much of the discussion was devoted to brainstorming possible reforms in areas such as intelligence.
"We let the president know we're getting into the recommendation phase, and that it's very important," Kean said. "We said we hoped we could test some things out as to whether some of recommendations we were considering were indeed practical. The president said he was open to some ideas, and nothing was ruled out."
"It was a very good meeting," Kerrey said. "I do think it'll help — in particular the president's description of what happened during 2001 and most particularly on 9/11. The president's narrative was important to give."
"I was impressed by the questions," the president said. "I think it helped them understand how I think and how I run the White House and how we deal with threats." He said there was a lot of discussion about how to protect the nation better.
In a statement afterward, the commissioners thanked Bush and Cheney for their information, and said they had been "forthcoming and candid."
"We are still vulnerable to attack," Bush told reporters. "And the reason why is al-Qaida still exists, al-Qaida's dangerous, al-Qaida hates us. And we have to be correct 100 percent of the time in defending America and they've got to be right once."
The commissioners came bearing briefcases, books and papers, and settled onto couches and chairs in the Oval Office. Bush was joined by his counsel, Alberto Gonzales and two other White House attorneys. The commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, served as note-taker. Gonzales spoke only once when Bush asked him a question, a participant said.
During the meeting, Bush unleashed a rare rebuke against his own Justice Department. He said was disappointed at Justice's release of documents that Republicans said showed that former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick — a Democratic member of the commission — was deeply involved in developing 1995 guidance that strengthened a legal "wall" making it difficult for FBI (news - web sites) counterintelligence agents to share information with prosecutors and criminal investigators.
"The president does not believe we ought to be pointing fingers in this time period," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.
McClellan, talking with reporters as the commission questioned Bush, said that it was an opportunity for Bush to "talk with them about the seriousness with which we took the threat from al-Qaida, the steps we were taking to confront it and how we have been responding to the attacks of Sept. 11."
Former White House terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke has contended that terrorism was not an urgent issue for Bush before Sept. 11 and that the administration had squandered the opportunity to eliminate al-Qaida.
The White House initially had opposed creation of the commission and later raised objections to extending its term, balked at Bush being questioned by all of the commission members and tried to prevent Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, from testifying in public under oath.
Bush declined to reveal what he told the commission, saying the panel would incorporate his and Cheney's comments in its final report.
"I'm glad I did it," Bush said. "I'm glad I took the time. ... I enjoyed it."
He said Cheney "answered a lot of their questions."
Thompson said Bush "was asked the vast majority of the questions and he answered them ... I thought the president gave a five-star performance."
Two members, Kerrey and Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman, left the Oval Office early because of what they said were prior commitments.
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report
On the Net:
Sept. 11 panel: http://www.9-11commission.gov