WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) are meeting Thursday behind closed doors with the panel investigating what went wrong with U.S. intelligence before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The two leaders will not be under oath and no transcript or recording of the proceedings will take place. The White House said that it has no plans to report the remarks by the president and vice president. Part of the reason, aides say, is that much of the discussion will be classified.
The White House is also sensitive about the separation of powers (search) issue, and officials don't want to create images of the president being grilled by the commission created by Congress.
Bush said Wednesday he is enthusiastic about talking with the commissioners.
"I look forward to giving the commissioners a chance to question both of us. It will be a good opportunity for people to help write a report that hopefully will help future presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country," Bush said during a photo op with Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson (search).
The president declined to answer questions about why Cheney will be with him when he faces the commission and why the White House has refused to allow a tape recording or transcript of the session. He also declined to say whether he felt he owed it to family members of the victims to address the panel.
"If they thought it would help him, they'd televise it," James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (search), said of White House advisers. "And obviously they don't think it will help him, and so they are not."
Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the interview should not be seen as testimony or an attempt by the panel to find out whether Bush is to blame for not preventing the attacks. Instead, Bush will contribute to the process of learning from Sept. 11, McClellan said, by putting into perspective the substantial information the White House has already provided. The president's central theme is expected to be that he had no hint about when or where terrorists would strike.
"This isn't something where it's a game of 'gotcha,' this is very important work that the commission is doing. And the president and the vice president want to do everything they can to help the commission piece together all the information we've provided them access to. This is not an adversarial process. We're all working together to learn the lessons of September 11th."
However, the process seems to have taken on an adversarial process, with Democrats saying the president abdicated his responsibility before the attack, and Republican lawmakers charging that commissioner Jamie Gorelick (search), President Clinton's deputy attorney general, should resign from the panel since they say she was heavily involved with adding on to the bureaucratic wall that separated criminal prosecutions and terrorism investigations before the attacks.
The Justice Department released documents publicly on Wednesday that were given to the National Commission on Terror Attacks Upon the United States (search) on Tuesday. The documents show that Gorelick was responsible for signing off on the new policy of separation and rejecting criticism from U.S. prosecutors who feared it could undermine future efforts to stop terror attacks.
The documents also show sharp criticism from Mary Jo White (search), the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office prosecuted the terrorists convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (search). That office also indicted Usama bin Laden (search) for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.
"It is hard to be totally comfortable with instructions to the FBI prohibiting contact with the United States Attorneys' offices when such prohibitions are not legally required," White wrote in a June 13, 1995, memo to then-Attorney General Janet Reno (search).
White wrote that the new policy would leave prosecutors blind to ongoing terror investigations and could create arbitrary lines of communication. A top aide to Gorelick, Michael Vatis, wrote that Reno should request White's request that U.S. attorneys' offices should be notified of ongoing terrorism investigations at the outset. Vatis wrote that the request seemed to seek special treatment for White's office.
Gorelick reviewed the Vatis memo and sent her handwritten approval of it to Reno. Gorelick has said that she will not resign, and commission chairman Thomas Kean (search) has said she is doing a fine job on the panel and will not ask her to leave.
Despite the allegations surrounding Gorelick, Thursday's meeting will likely follow along the lines of the three-hour televised hearings with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search). Democratic commissioners Bob Kerrey and Richard Ben-Veniste were among the most aggressive questioners of Rice.
"What Bush should expect is a lot of questions trying to reconstruct what the government and what the president knew and when he knew it about the threat from Al Qaeda, about the potential threat from airplanes, about potential hijackings, about the presence of terrorists in the country, about any sense of urgency going on out there," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (search). "And if it's stuff that he didn't know, why does he think he didn't know it?"
"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," said Republican commissioner Slade Gorton.
One key question Bush will be asked is how he dealt with information one month before the attacks that said Al Qaeda (search) seemed interested in hijacking a plane and planning attacks with explosives within the United States. Bush has said previously there was nothing in that Aug. 6 memo that "something is about to happen in America."
Bush and Cheney are also expected to confront questions about whether they were too distracted by the possibility of attacking Iraq to pay attention to warnings of an impending terror attack. Reporter Bob Woodward (search) and former White House terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke (search) separately contend that Bush and Cheney were fixated on finding an Iraqi link to the attacks. The administration has denied it.
The meeting between Bush, Cheney and the commissioners will take place in the Oval Office at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to take several hours.
McClellan said the president has spent the past few days reviewing materials from the period around the attacks to refresh his memory and talking with the vice president and several other senior officials, including Chief of Staff Andy Card, who first told him of the attacks, during a trip to Sarasota, Fla. He's also spent time talking with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, who'll be in the room with him.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.