After opposing the creation of the 9/11 Commission, blocking access to documents, and refusing to testify in front of it for months, President Bush sits down tomorrow to answer their questions. The catch? In an unprecedented move, under a deal struck by the White House Counsel, the Vice President Cheney will be by his side. While the commission has agreed to meeting under these unusual circumstances, the American people – and especially the media – should not let this decision go unquestioned. When the president was asked about the joint-appearance, he said, "Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them." The real answers are clear.
- Only an hour long. According to the written deal struck with the commission, the president and the vice president only agreed to one hour of questioning. Between the two of them, they will be able to eat up the clock. Splitting the time between the two them, the commissioners will be limited to asking only a few questions. Following up on important leads and digging into the critical details won’t be possible. And of course, the president can always burn the hour talking at endless length about his performance post-9/11.
- No transcript. Unlike other witnesses who have testified before the commission in public and under oath, there will be no public, verbatim record of the president or vice president’s answers. Consequently, whatever happens behind closed doors, there is a strong likelihood that it may remain largely unknown to the public=
- Eliminates the chance of differing stories. In the past the president and the vice president have given differing answers on questions of national security. Allowing them to testify together allows them to avoid making contradictory statements or stating mismatched facts (i.e. Aug 6, 2001 PDB), which could allow critical issues for exploration to slip through the cracks.
- Allows passing the buck. If the president simply feels like passing a question, he can do so by calling on the vice president to rescue him. Similarly, if he is unable to answer a question or is put in an uncomfortable position, the vice president will be there to clean up the mess. If both men’s memories fail, neither the commission nor the American people will get the answers they deserve.
- No outside fact check. Outside of the scrutiny of the media’s eye, unless caught by the commissioners themselves, the president and the vice president will be able to get away with making misleading or inaccurate statements. The range of issues expected to be addressed such as charges in Richard Clarke’s book, the Justice Department’s budget, and the number of principals meetings, would all benefit from outside attention. While one staffer per commissioner is allowed, this does not properly compensate for the important scrutiny that the press would provide.
- No national discussion. Unlike the drama of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s testimony, which captured the nation’s interest, it is unlikely that there will be the necessary focus on new information coming out of this meeting. The commission’s work should be sparking a national dialogue on issues of homeland security, emergency preparedness, and accountability. Instead, in line with its approach to the commission to date, the administration appears to want to sweep things under the rug.