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U.S.: Bush, Cheney Appear Before Panel Probing 11 September

U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear today before the commission investigating the U.S. government's handling of the attacks of 11 September 2001. They will not give sworn testimony, and their statements will be not be recorded. Only notes will be taken. Bush says he and Cheney are looking forward to helping the commission. But critics say the many conditions placed on their testimony indicate the information given may be less than candid.

Washington, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking with reporters at the White House yesterday, Bush said he hopes he and Cheney can help the commission develop recommendations that could prevent a recurrence of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

"I look forward to the discussion, I look forward to giving the commissioners the chance to question both of us,” Bush said. “And it'll be an ample -- a good opportunity for these people to help write a report that hopefully will help future presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country."

There is no time limit set upon the Bush-Cheney appearance before the panel, which takes place at the White House. But that was not always the case. The White House originally said Bush would give the panel only an hour of his time.

Six weeks ago, Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), who likely will be Bush's principal challenger in the 2 November election, complained about what he called the president's priorities. At that time, Bush was attending a rodeo in his home state of Texas.

"If the president of the United States can find the time to go to a rodeo, he can find the time to do more than one hour in front of a commission that is investigating what happened to America's intelligence," Kerry said.

Hours after Kerry's remark, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House was no longer insisting on an hour's limit to the president's testimony. He said Bush would answer all its questions, and added, "Nobody's watching the clock."

Bush originally opposed creating the commission, but eventually gave in. Later, when the panel said it needed more time to complete its investigation, the president again resisted because its final report would be issued in late summer, close to the election. Again, however, he relented.

Most recently, Bush demanded that his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, not testify in public, or under oath, before the commission. The panel argued it was important for the public to witness her sworn testimony and that of other senior administration officials.

The White House countered that such testimony might cause future presidential aides to be less candid in their advice. Bush again gave in, with the condition that Rice's appearance not be considered a precedent for future administrations.

One reason Bush may have for opposing the commission is the testimony of Richard Clark, who served as the White House counterterrorism coordinator until he quit a year ago because he believed the president was not taking the Al-Qaeda threat seriously.

Clarke testified before the commission -- in public and under oath -- that Bush instead showed a preoccupation with Saddam Hussein and with building an antimissile shield to protect the United States from more conventional attacks by countries such as North Korea.

"I do believe that a president who doesn't have anything to hide would be more willing to talk both to this commission and to the public about what happened before [11 September]."
David Boaz told RFE/RL that it is understandable that Bush or any other president would resist testifying before a commission created by Congress. Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a private policy-research center in Washington. He specializes in U.S. politics and constitutional issues.

Boaz told RFE/RL that it is not common for presidents to testify before such panels, especially under oath -- and that it is not clear whether they are required to do so. The forces at play, he said, involve the tension between the executive branch of government, the White House, and the legislative branch of government, Congress.

"Ours is a system of both written and unwritten law, and there are written laws about the relationship between the executive and the legislative [branches]. But there are also things that simply evolve through precedent. And this [Bush and the commission] is clearly one of those things, where Congress and the commission that Congress created believe that the president ought to provide information. The president understandably resists being called to account by the other branch of government," Boaz said.

Still, Boaz said he is troubled by the extent of Bush's resistance to the commission, especially in light of much of the public testimony that the panel already has heard. He said he believes Bush has something to hide -- if only an acknowledgment that his administration was insufficiently alert to the kind of threat posed by groups like Al-Qaeda.

"I do believe that a president who doesn't have anything to hide would be more willing to talk both to this commission and to the public about what happened before [11 September]," he said. "I think it's clear that there are things that -- in retrospect, at least -- we know should have been done, and weren't done. And that's not a happy topic for a president facing re-election."

But Boaz also stressed that all such judgments are made in retrospect, and that they may be unfairly harsh to Bush. But he adds that does not make the president's decision on appearing before the commission any easier during an election year.