The White House rebuffed the commission’s request for an individual meeting with the president – and the insistence on no recordings or transcripts of the private meeting at the White House has raised eyebrows.
Bush was to meet at 09:30 (13:30 GMT) on Thursday in the Oval Office with all 10 members of the “National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States,” behind closed doors and for an unspecified amount of time.
But Bush and Cheney will not be sworn to tell the truth, and the White House has also refused to back off its opposition to recording or officially transcribing the meeting, citing the possibility of classified material being discussed.
“It will be a good opportunity for these people to help write a report that hopefully will help future presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country,” Bush explained on Wednesday.
Clinton, Gore on record
But when the commission interviewed former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore, their sessions were recorded and transcribed, according to published reports.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan sought to downplay the controversy over the lack of a transcript, saying that between commission members and their lone staff member in the room, “I’m sure there’ll be detailed notes taken.”
Bush has been preparing for his appearance by reviewing relevant documents and meeting with aides including White House chief of staff Andy Card and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, said McClellan.
“This is an opportunity for him to refresh his memory and make sure that he can provide the commission with the complete account of events as possible,” said the spokesman.
Besides Cheney, Bush will be accompanied to the meeting by some of his aides, including his official lawyer, White House counsel Al Gonzales. An official from Gonzalez’s office will take notes on the meeting, McClellan said.
Condoleezza Rice helped prepare
Bush has dropped his prior insistence that only the commission chairman, Republican Tom Kean, and its top Democrat, former representative Lee Hamilton, be present, and that the questioning last only one hour.
The White House and top Bush advisors outside the administration have struggled to explain why the president, who initially fiercely opposed the commission’s creation, is taking Cheney with him.
The New York Times said on Thursday that Bush’s stipulations for his testimony “range from the questionable to the ridiculous,” branding his co-appearance with Cheney the “strangest” of the lot.
‘Late night joke’
“Given the White House’s concern for portraying Mr. Bush as a strong leader,” said the Times editorial, “it’s remarkable that this critical appearance is being structured in a way that is certain to provide fodder for late-night comedians, who enjoy depicting him as the docile puppet of his vice president.”
Democrats, in turn, have charged that the White House is trying to avoid the possibility that the two might give contradictory testimony, and is effectively limiting the number of questions Bush and Cheney will face.
“This is not an adversarial process. We’re all working together to learn the lessons of 11 September and look at what else we might do in addition to the steps we’ve already taken to win the war on terrorism,” said McClellan.
The commission is scheduled to complete its final report in late July, as the White House race shifts into top gear ahead of the 2 November US presidential election.