WASHINGTON – The setting of President Bush's meeting with the Sept. 11 commission resembled countless previous sessions in the Oval Office (search): The president in a high-backed chair, fireplace behind him, guests arrayed before him on light-colored couches.
But this was a meeting like no other. Bush's "guests" were 10 interrogators from the independent commission, and they brought a long list of questions about his actions leading up to the terrorist attacks.
Flanking Bush in a matching blue-and-beige chair was Vice President Dick Cheney; after resisting any appearance by Bush, the White House had insisted that they appear together.
The session had the air of a negotiating summit between teams of lawyers.
In addition to Cheney, Bush was joined by his top in-house attorney, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (search), plus two of Gonzales's staff members whom the White House refused to identify.
Tourists strolling the sidewalk along the White House South Lawn could see no evidence of the extraordinary meeting occurring inside the Oval Office. It was a bright spring day, and sunshine streamed into the room through bulletproof glass.
Just outside, Secret Service (search) agents chatted, and the Rose Garden was bursting with tulips.
Bush chose to host his questioners in a room designed to project the maximum aura of the presidency to the visitors.
A bust of Winston Churchill over the fireplace and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln kept watch over the proceedings.
The White House took steps to shield the session from public view, minimizing exposure to a political sore spot six months before the election.
It refused to allow reporters or photographers in for any of the session, and would not agree to release pictures taken by official White House photographers. It also refused to allow an audio recording or transcript to be made of the unprecedented meeting.