What did the president know and when? Bush and Cheney face the 9/11 commission.

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”The President is already under oath as the president of the United States. … He will tell it exactly how it happened.”

So said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, anticipating President Bush’s closed-door appearance today before the 9/11 commission. To laughter, one reporter fired back, “He’s under oath 24 hours a day?”

Bush is hoping that Americans will ignore media skeptics and the lessons of history and quietly accept his and Cheney’s joint audience with the 9/11 commission as “a form of closure” even though neither the president nor the vice president will be under oath, and no transcript will be made of their closed door meeting at the White House this morning.

But will Americans really learn anything from such a carefully negotiated session of executive (dis)closure?

That Bush — Cheney or no — is appearing before the commission at all is a testament to the tenacity of the commissioners and, more important, the damage done by Richard Clarke’s recent revelations of presidential negligence in face of the terrorist threat. In the months after September 11, Bush opposed having any investigation at all, caving only when the broad public seemed to demand it. Even after agreeing to the creation of the commission, the administration continued to stonewall on the release of Clinton-era documents, opposed extending the commission’s life and protected Condoleezza Rice from testifying publicly right up to the moment Richard Clarke’s testimony made that position untenable.

Even now Bush’s cooperation is subject to conditions and qualifiers.

Originally, Bush agreed to meet with only two commissioners – out of a total of 10, half Republicans, half Democrats – for one measly hour. (For context: Bill Clinton spared four hours or more, and Condoleezza Rice about three; and Bush himself granted Bob Woodward 4 hours of face time for his recent book.) When it became apparent earlier this month that this would not do for the 9/11 commissioners, Bush negotiated the current set-up. He would meet with all 10 commissioners for as long as they liked — on the condition that Dick Cheney and Bush’s lawyer, Alberto Gonzales would be there to help; that none of them would take an oath to tell the truth; that the hearing would be closed and that no recording or transcripts would ever be made; and, finally, that Bush’s appearance would absolve the administration from making any further public testimony to the commission. Perhaps that last little proviso is where the “closure” comes in? So Bush gets his closure, but what about everybody else?

A commission spokesman, Al Felzenberg, says, “this is a private interview and it’s being treated that way.” Which makes it unclear just what, absent tapes or transcripts, the public can expect to learn about today’s meeting and makes it unlikely that Bush and Cheney can be held accountable in the unlikely event that anything new does comeout in the closed hearing room. Which is of course a fruit of Bush’s careful negotiations.

Bush has declined to explain why it’s necessary for Dick Cheney to be with him during the hearing, though his spokesman has insisted in recent days that Bush has been studying old documents and prepping with Cheney, Rice and Gonzales for his appearance, where the Los Angeles Times reports, “Bush plans to do most of the talking.”

Many in Washington are assuming, according to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

the White House requested the joint appearance … so Cheney could coach Bush on his answers. While Bush has declined to explain the rationale for the joint meeting, Democrats charge that Cheney would be a ‘ventriloquist,’ and even a number of independent observers say it appears that the two men are trying to keep their stories straight.

Bush aides have offered a somewhat more detailed explanation. Officials said they see the session as a way to tie together the testimony of many other administration officials. They also said that while the commissioners are free to address any subject, they expect the panel to focus on the actions on Sept. 11.

Independent observers also expect the commission to focus on the old question: “what did the president know and when did he know it?” This will mean focusing on the Bush administration’s possible neglect of terrorism before 9/11, the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, and to a lesser degree, post 9/11 plans for re-tooling intelligence and the war with Iraq – all questions raised in previous 9/11 hearings, but most notably in the dueling accounts of Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice.

Supporters have recently been claiming that for Bush to appear at all before a congressionally mandated committee is an unprecedented concession, yet plenty of presidents have had to snake their way through prickly investigations.

When Clinton appeared before a grand jury during the Lewinsky scandal, his testimony was recorded — indeed, videotaped — and eventually replayed on television to unforgettable political effect. When he appeared recently before the 9/11 commission Clinton agreed to let the commission record his testimony, though he refused to take an oath. The White House tried to spin this very technical documenting process in its favor with its claim yesterday that Clinton and Al Gore’s testimonies were not transcribed. Transcribed: no, not yet. But recorded and available for transcription, yes.

Perhaps Clinton would have benefited by looking to a precedent once set by the Gipper. The Washington Post notes that Bush’s decision to ban any recording or transcription of today’s meeting followed “a practice President Ronald Reagan used in 1987 when appearing before a commission probing the Iran-contra matter, [which] removes the possibility that the transcript would become a political issue and precludes any subpoena.”

And of course, when looking to precedents for presidential truth telling, who could forget Nixon, who paid the ultimate presidential penalty for his lying. According to Lance Davis, a former special counsel to President Clinton, “History has taught a lesson that all presidents need to be transparent. Avoiding transparency on grounds of constitutional principle is not going to fly in the post Watergate era.”

Somewhat surprisingly given the high profile of the 9/11 hearings — not to mention the ongoing events in Iraq, Dick Cheney’s pending energy task force case in the Supreme Court and the enemy combatant cases also in the court — Bush has suffered very little politically or otherwise for his insistence to appear hand in hand with Cheney behind closed doors.

Americans may not be eager to criticize Bush or even to take lessons from previous presidents who promised to “tell it exactly how it happened,” but you can be sure Bush won’t escape completely unscathed – even if the barbs are mostly coming by way of late-night TV: Jay Leno joked recently that “to make sure Bush is really answering, [the commission is] going to make Cheney drink a glass of water while he talks.”

Unfortunately, it appears that we’ll never know definitively who drank water at the hearing this morning, or much of anything else, for that matter.


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