WASHINGTON – President Bush, meeting privately with the Sept. 11 commission, faces 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 (search) said was "blinking red" with warnings of a terrorist strike.
Bush, who describes himself as a wartime president who has made the nation safer, and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) were meeting for several hours Thursday in the Oval Office with 10 members of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed some 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.
When the doors close behind them, the nation's top two elected officials were to be quizzed about why, for instance, the Bush administration didn't make terrorism a more urgent priority, especially after an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily brief that, among other things, warned of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings."
"Why wasn't it higher, given the threat levels in spring and summer 2001?" says former Indiana Rep. Timothy Roemer (search), a Democratic member of the commission. Why, Roemer wonders, didn't the Aug. 6 memo cause more people to man "battle stations" in the month before the attacks?
The Bush administration has said it did make terrorism a top priority, and that there was nothing in the memo that specified the type, time or place of an attack on America.
The effect of Bush and Cheney's highly classified Q&A session with the commissioners might not be known until the panel releases its final report, which is due out this summer, 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 be 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."
Another issue Bush and Cheney are expected to confront is Iraq. Both men have been accused of being distracted by Iraq in the months before Sept. 11, making them inattentive to warnings pointing to a terror attack. In newly released books, Bob Woodward and former White House terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke separately contend that Bush and Cheney were fixated on finding an Iraqi link to the attacks. The administration has denied it.
Republican commissioner Slade Gorton said, "We're going to ask about the pre 9/11 attitudes and policies ... and what took place on 9/11 in terms of response and what each of them did."
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.
The commission had preferred to meet separately with Bush and Cheney, but the White House wanted the president and vice president to face the commission together. After the administration placed restrictions on holding separate meetings - only two commissioners could meet with each for one hour - the commission agreed to the joint meeting in which all the commissioners could meet for an unspecified amount of time with both.
"They need to have one story and it's easiest to have one story when they're in the room together," Thurber said about the reason he thought Bush and Cheney wanted to be interviewed together. "I don't mean they're trying to distort anything. It's useful to them. It protects them if they're both in the room at the same time."
Bush has asked White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and two members of his staff to be there too.
Gonzales will make sure that the ground rules of the meeting are 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."
At the administration's request, the meeting will not be recorded. Notetakers from the commission and the White House staff will take detailed notes, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. The commission's interviews with former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore were recorded.