Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The closed-door Oval Office meeting today between September 11 commission members, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will lack any real “drama” and likely cover little new ground, Democratic commission member Bob Kerrey said yesterday.

“It will be not unlike the meeting we had with President Clinton. It’s very informal and won’t have, I don’t think, any of the drama that a lot of people expect,” said the former senator from Nebraska, who was among the most combative in questioning National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during her appearance before the panel earlier this month.

“I think it will be a pretty straightforward conversation with them telling us what went on in 2001,” Mr. Kerrey said.

But a top Republican official with close ties to the White House said the partisan nature of the commission — with Democratic members such as former Clinton Justice Department official Jamie S. Gorelick, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and former Indiana Rep. Timothy J. Roemer attacking the Bush administration — will not change after today’s interviews.

“The commission itself has devolved into a circus, and as long as they are in existence, the circus will continue. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if four members walk out and say they’re disappointed that the president didn’t answer questions and they want to have another session with him,” the official said.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was more optimistic. “This isn’t something where it’s a game of ‘gotcha,’” he said yesterday.

This morning’s testimony, which begins at 9:30 and is expected to last up to three hours, will bring to an end the high-profile aspect of the work assigned to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 10-member panel will hold sessions in New York next month and a final set of meetings in Washington in June before issuing a report in July.

Mr. Kerrey said he is particularly interested in the fact that “we were surprised by a single hijacking, that the [Federal Aviation Administration] failed to prepare for the possibility that members of an Islamic army that were in the United States might hijack an airplane.”

“That the FAA was completely unprepared is, to me, the most noteworthy fact of the morning of September 11th,” he said.

Mr. Kerrey also said that some members may ask about the contents of an Aug. 6, 2001, document known as the “presidential daily briefing” (PDB) — which was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” and included information on possible hijackings.

The former Nebraska senator also said he may ask why the Bush administration, contrary to campaign pledges, did not retaliate for the attack against the USS Cole.

Mr. Roemer said yesterday he hopes to shed light on the question “Was this a priority for this administration?”

“How did the president personally make it a priority, an urgent priority, especially in the spring and summer of 2001, when people were saying their hair is ‘on fire,’ the chatter was coming in and saying something big was about to happen,” he said on CNN.

He called the Aug. 6 memo the “tip of the iceberg.”

But Republican commissioner Slade Gorton, former Washington senator, said his line of questioning will be more broad. “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,” the former Washington senator said.

The commission’s mandate, set out in a November 2002 bill signed by the president, is to provide a “full and complete accounting” of the 9/11 attack and recommend policy to prevent further terrorist attacks.

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