WASHINGTON – President Bush agreed Friday to meet privately with the federal commission reviewing the Sept. 11 attacks but declined to testify publicly about what the government could have done to prevent the tragedy.
The commission "today requested a private meeting with the President to discuss information relevant to the commission's work. The President has agreed to the request," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
But while the panel has "suggested the possibility of a public session at a later time, we believe the President can provide all the requested information in the private meeting, and there is no need for any additional testimony," McClellan said.
Bush previously has said he would "perhaps" submit to questions from the panel but would not say whether he would testify publicly. Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore have indicated a willingness to provide private testimony about government missteps prior to the 2001 attacks.
The Sept. 11 panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search), was established by Congress to study the nation's preparedness before the attacks and its response afterward, and to recommend ways to guard against similar disasters.
The bipartisan panel faces a May 27 deadline to complete its work but has asked for at least a two-month extension, citing a need to conduct more interviews and analyze documents. Bush last week reversed course and said he favors more time, too, but House Republican leaders remain opposed.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean (search), the commission's Republican chairman, said the panel will be forced to pare down inquiries into intelligence failures if Congress doesn't give it more time.
The panel planned 10 more public meetings but now says it will only have time for seven. Commissioners also will be forced to do without some follow-up interviews with officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
"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 Sept. 11 victims have said better intelligence might have helped prevent the attacks. Last week, Bush announced that he would form a separate investigatory panel to examine prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Legislation is pending in the House and Senate that would extend the Sept. 11 panel's deadline to Jan. 10, 2005, a date that supporters say will 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," Hastert spokesman John Feehery said. "Every commission created has always asked for more time. We need the recommendations as soon as possible."
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 the material raised new questions that have prompted them to seek additional interviews with officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims said Friday it would be an outrage if the commission had to cut down its intelligence probe.
"Anyone who stands in opposition to an extension clearly will have to answer to the American public as to why they felt national security should be compromised, especially in the event of another attack," said Kristen Breitweiser of New Jersey. Her husband Ronald died in the World Trade Center.