Secret Meeting Stays That Way

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, April 30, 2004; 10:31 AM

So what did President Bush and Vice President Cheney say in their much-anticipated, historic (private, secret) meeting with 9/11 commission?

Who knows?

Almost nothing substantive emerged in the news reports last night and this morning.

Yes, we know Bush described the session as "wide-ranging" and "cordial" and he said he "answered every question they asked."

We know that the commission called it "extraordinary."

We know that the vast majority of the questions went to Bush, that he responded to them all, that Cheney answered some questions and added to some of Bush's responses, and that White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales chipped in a few details here and there.

But what did they say?

Dan Eggen and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "Neither side disclosed much detail about the substance of the discussion, but three commission members said they learned new details about the government's counterterrorism policies and strategies in the months before the attacks, as well as about the events of Sept. 11. One of the commissioners said there were 'several surprises.' . . .

"Bush aides said the session's emphasis was on steps taken since the attacks rather than the administration's actions beforehand. . . .

David Gregory of NBC News had a tidbit.

"At the White House on the morning of September 11, officials were alarmed more attacks were coming, and an airliner headed from Spain to the U.S. was a big worry," Gregory reported on the Nightly News.

"They wanted permission to shoot it down if necessary. And today, the president told the commission he issued that order shortly after arriving at Strategic Command Headquarters in Omaha. He learned later, he said, that the plane turned back to Madrid. It was not part of the attack.

"It was just one example of the confusion of that day, an area of interest for the commissioners."

CNN's John King also reported that "Bush and Cheney discussed their concerns about possible follow-on attacks and orders given authorizing U.S. military jets to shoot down planes that did not follow FAA grounding orders or respond to communications. . . .

"An administration official who was not present but discussed the session with the president would not discuss details but said a significant amount of time was spent on the response to the attacks."

Philip Shenon and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times that Bush and Cheney "said intelligence warnings they received throughout 2001 suggested that Al Qaeda was poised to strike overseas, not on American soil, according to accounts of commission and administration officials."

Hope Yen of the Associated Press writes: "Sitting in high-back chairs, Bush and Cheney fielded a broad array of questions about the lack of a U.S. military response after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors and an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential brief Bush received a month before the attacks warning that Osama bin Laden was preparing to strike.

"The government's response on the day of the attacks also was discussed, with Bush and Cheney offering a detailed narrative that will be helpful for the commission's remaining two public hearings, commission members said."

Here's the transcript and video of Bush's remarks after the meeting, the day's press briefing and an official statement from the 9-11 commission.

The Associated Press helpfully collected reaction quotes from various parties.

Democratic commission member Timothy Roemer went on CNN with Wolf Blitzer.

"We certainly learned a lot," Roemer said. "He was cooperative, he was frank and gracious with his time."

And, he added unnecessarily, "I will not talk about the substance."

So, Lots of Scene Setting

Connie Cass of the Associated Press describes the scene in great detail: "The panel members, accustomed at their public hearings to looking down on witnesses from the long, curved dais of a Senate hearing room, instead settled with their binders and briefcases onto an array of chairs and pale, plump sofas. They were served coffee and soft drinks; there was a sociable air."

This from the Shenon and Sanger story in the New York Times: "Administration officials said the president and vice president were seated in wing-back chairs in front of the Oval Office fireplace, with the commission members seated on a pair of couches and several wooden chairs in an informal semicircle around them, the day's strong sunlight streaming in from the windows behind them."

And Adjectives Aplenty

Cam Simpson and Jeff Zeleny write in the Chicago Tribune that the meeting was "described as candid, cordial and, at times, even humorous. . . .

"James Thompson, the former Republican governor of Illinois, echoed other commissioners when he said Bush answered every question put to him, calling it 'a five-star performance' from the president.

"'He was calm, collected, cool, articulate, knowledgeable and passionate,' Thompson said."

On Appearing Jointly

From Bush's remarks after the meeting:

"QUESTION: Mr. President, as you know, a lot of critics suggested that you wanted to appear jointly with the vice president so that you two could keep your stories straight or something. Could you tell us what you think of the value of appearing together and how you would answer those critics?

"BUSH: First of all, look, if we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place. We answered all their questions.

"As I say, I came away good about the session, because I wanted them to know, you know, how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we deal with threats.

"The vice president answered a lot of their questions -- answered all their questions.

"And I think it was important for them to see our body language as well, how we work together.

"But it was -- you know, the commissioners will speak for themselves over time. They will let you know whether they thought it was a fruitful series of discussions. I think they did. I think they found it to be useful."

Surprise, (No) Surprise

So were there surprises or not?

From the New York Times: "'There were no surprises,' said the panel's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, who was named to the position by Mr. Bush. 'There was information that we did not have. But it was not information that was a surprise.'"

From The Washington Post: "One of the commissioners said there were 'several surprises.'"

From the Associated Press: Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the commission, "described some of the answers as 'surprising' and 'new' but declined to give details. 'I think the less I say that could be construed as critical, the better chance we have of reaching consensus when we write our final report.'"

Does that mean we won't know until the end of July?

The Wall

One of the few specific (and surprising, if not really substantive) things we know about the meeting was that Bush expressed strong disapproval of the Justice Department for releasing documents that Republicans are using to criticize a Democrat on the commission.

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "In an administration that prides itself on its unified message, it is rare for the White House publicly to chide any of the president's senior advisers."

Gaggle Follies

Some background about how things work in the White House: When the president is in town, press secretary Scott McClellan generally meets with the press twice, once at the televised and oh-so-public mid-day press briefing -- and once, in the morning, in a logistics-heavy dry run, called the "gaggle." The transcript is not typically released.

But Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Micah Marshall has excerpts from yesterday morning's, in which, even more than usual, the press corps was baying for scraps of information from McClellan.

Why, for instance, he wouldn't immediately identify the two extra White House lawyers in attendance at the session is beyond me. They were later identified as associate counsel Tom Monheim and Bryan Cunningham of the National Security Council.

And What Was That About?

From the Eggen and Milbank story in The Post: "Two of the Democratic commissioners left the session about an hour early. Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton was scheduled to introduce the Canadian prime minister at a luncheon, and former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey left to meet with Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) on funding issues related to New School University, where Kerrey serves as president."

After all it took to get there, they leave early?

Brian Blomquist and Vincent Morriscall it a "a stunning snub" in the New York Post.

Playing on TV

New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley bemoans the lack of imagery from yesterday's meeting, and asks: "If an important meeting takes place in the Oval Office and there are no television cameras to record it, did the meeting matter?"

Here, for instance, is John Roberts of CBS News, doing the best with what he's got.

The Bremer Warning

In the absence of news from yesterday's meeting, there is much ado about an old warning from L. Paul Bremer, who before his current gig, in 1999, chaired a national commission on terrorism.

As Reuters reports: "The head of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, Paul Bremer, warned six months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the Bush administration seemed to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism and appeared to 'stagger along' on the issue."

Quoth Bremer:

"The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. . . . What they will do is stagger along until there's a major incident and then suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, shouldn't we be organized to deal with this?'"

Interestingly, the Bremer comments first resurfaced -- as far as I can tell -- a week ago, in an article by Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader.

And Bremer's comments came in a speech for the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation. Yes, that's the foundation named for the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

Valerie Plame Watch

David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV says in a new book that he believes the White House official behind the disclosure of his wife's identity as an undercover C.I.A. officer was 'quite possibly' I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. But Mr. Wilson offers no firm evidence to support his assertion, and the White House has denied it. . . .

"He says another person whose name 'has most often been repeated to me' is Elliott Abrams. . . . Last year, Mr. Wilson identified Karl Rove, senior political adviser to Mr. Bush, as the probable source of the leak, but he later backed off from that accusation. In the book, he writes that Mr. Rove circulated information from the work-up on him within the administration.

"The White House has denied that Mr. Libby, Mr. Abrams or Mr. Rove were involved in the disclosure."

In the Washington Post, Susan Schmidt writes primarily about the book's revelation about "Baghdad Bob," (also known as "Comical Ali") . But at the bottom of the story, she adds:

"Much of Wilson's book recounts the events surrounding the disclosure that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. A grand jury investigating the disclosure has been highly active in the past seven weeks, suggesting that it may have reached a new stage, people familiar with the probe said. Plame was a covert operative. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is illegal to knowingly disclose the name of a covert CIA employee.

"FBI agents and prosecutors have interviewed some current and former White House officials repeatedly, people involved in the case said. Several administration officials testified before the grand jury in recent weeks."

Mark Memmott writes in USA Today: "Vice President Cheney was aware of a meeting held by his staff that started a chain of events that ended with the 'effective betrayal of our country,' former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson charged Thursday in an interview with USA TODAY."

Jonathan S. Landay of Knight Ridder Newspapers also spoke to Wilson, who said that "Vice President Dick Cheney's office mounted a campaign to discredit him after he challenged President Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had secretly tried to buy uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons."

Badger Badger?

Senior White House health policy adviser Doug Badger will be on Ask the White House today.

What a great chance for members of the House Ways and Means Committee to submit the questions they had ready for him a few weeks ago when the White House, citing executive privilege, declined the committee's invitation to have Badger testify.

Democrats were trying to determine whether Badger, who worked closely on the Medicare legislation, had anything to do with withholding information from Congress that the bill would be far more expensive than lawmakers knew.

Richard S. Foster, the government's chief analyst of Medicare costs, said he was threatened with firing last year if he disclosed too much information to Congress. And he said he thought his former boss, Thomas A. Scully, the former Medicare administrator, might be acting on orders from Badger.

I've submitted a question (From "Dan in Washington, D.C."). Let's see if he gets to it.

For background, read Amy Goldstein's story from the March 20 Washington Post.

Cheney Endorses Fox News

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney endorsed the Fox News Channel during a conference call last night with tens of thousands of Republicans who were gathered across the country to celebrate a National Party for the President Day organized by the Bush-Cheney campaign. . . .

"'I end up spending a lot of time watching Fox News, because they're more accurate in my experience, in those events that I'm personally involved in, than many of the other outlets.' . . .

"The comment came as Cheney took questions from supporters at 5,245 parties that were held in 50 states to energize grass-roots volunteers building a precinct-by-precinct army for President Bush's campaign."

That Big Dinner

Given how badly Bush's Gridiron Dinner shtick about the missing weapons of mass destruction went over with the general public, I asked readers yesterday what they would do at Saturday's White House Correspondents Association dinner, if they were Bush.

Many, many answers to the effect of: Don't go. Go and resign. Bring Cheney.

Here are a few others:

• "He should make light of the heat he took for the original jokes that caused problems. Then he should acknowledge that finding the weapons has been as difficult as pinning John Kerry down to one position on various issues." (Jason Watts, Wichita)

• "If I were Bush, I'd order the same dinner as my Dad had in Japan, vomit on Leno, and leave early. Then issue a statement blaming Saddam for it." (Tim Wedig, College Park, Md.)

• "Strip my clothes off and crawl on my knees through the streets of Washington, scourging myself for my sins. . . . And I would skip the correspondents' dinner." (Chris Sprigman, Stanford, Calif.)

Today's Calendar

Elizabeth Wolfe of the Associated Press writes: "In his first official visit to the United States, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin is meeting with President Bush after talking with congressional leaders about border security, trade and Iraq."

Late Night Humor

From the "Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn", via the Associated Press:

"President Bush and Dick Cheney appeared before the 9-11 commission. It was kind of an awkward start. A senator asked, 'How are you, Mr. President,' and they both answered, 'Fine.' . . . The meeting was a private closed-door session, which means they probably spent a lot of time trading ethnic jokes."

From CBS's "Late Show with David Letterman", via Reuters: "Here's the condition of the testimony: No transcript, no records whatsoever, no evidence that it ever happened; it's just like President Bush and the National Guard."

© 2004