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Context of 'April 29, 2004: President Bush and Vice President Cheney Privately Meet with 9/11 Commission; They Decline to Provide Testimony under Oath'

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Attorney General John Ashcroft before the 9/11 Commission.Attorney General John Ashcroft before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Associated Press]Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies publicly before the 9/11 Commission. Due to information leaked to the public about Ashcroft’s apparently poor performance and lack of interest in terrorism before the attacks (see Spring 2001, July 12, 2001, and September 10, 2001), in the words of author Philip Shenon, “Everybody expect[s] it to be a difficult day for Ashcroft—maybe the day that mark[s] the end of his tenure as George Bush’s attorney general.” Executing a strategy designed in advance by the Justice Department’s leadership, instead of defending his record, Ashcroft goes on the offensive against the Commission. First, Ashcroft withholds from the Commission a copy of his written statement, although all other witnesses provide this. Then, when his testimony starts, he blames the problems dealing with terrorist threats on information-sharing regulations set up by former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, now a 9/11 commissioner. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 325-327]
Ashcroft Exaggerates Effect of Gorelick Memo - He comments: “The single greatest structural cause for September 11 was the ‘wall’ that segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents. Government erected this ‘wall.’ Government buttressed this ‘wall.’ And before September 11, government was blinded by this ‘wall.’” The wall was a set of procedures that regulated the passage of information from FBI intelligence agents to FBI criminal agents and prosecutors to ensure that information obtained using warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would not be thrown out from criminal cases (see July 19, 1995). Ashcroft says that the wall impeded the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and that a “warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the ‘wall.’” (Note: two applications to search Moussaoui’s belongings were prepared. The first was not submitted because it was thought to be “shaky” (see August 21, 2001). The second warrant application was prepared as a part of an intelligence investigation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, so it was not affected by the “wall” (see August 28, 2001)). According to Ashcroft, the wall also impeded the search for hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi because criminal investigators were not allowed to join in. However, the 9/11 Commission will find that they could legally have helped, but were prevented from doing so by FBI headquarters (see August 29, 2001). Ashcroft asserts that 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick was responsible for the wall. He cites a document he just declassified that had been written by Gorelick to deal with the two 1993 World Trade Center bombing cases (see March 4, 1995). That document becomes known as the “wall memo.” However, this memo only governed the two WTC cases; all other cases were governed by a different, but similar memo written by Attorney General Janet Reno a few months later (see July 19, 1995). [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]
Commission's Response - 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will say that the “attorney general’s claim was overstated,” and that the two 1995 memos only codified a set of procedures that already existed (see Early 1980s). During questioning, Republican 9/11 commissioner Slade Gorton points out that Ashcroft’s deputy reaffirmed the procedures in an August 2001 memo that stated, “The 1995 procedures remain in effect today” (see August 6, 2001). [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 194-6] Ashcroft’s accusation against Gorelick produces an immediate public response. Commissioner Bob Kerrey (D-NE) will say: “Ashcroft was still speaking, and the e-mails were already coming in. The e-mails said things like, ‘You traitor, you should be ashamed of yourself for having somebody like Gorelick on the 9/11 Commission.’ I could see that this was a setup.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 329]
Falsely Claims No Clinton Program to Kill Bin Laden - Ashcroft also claims there was no program to kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11, saying, “Let me be clear: my thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill bin Laden.” However, the 9/11 Commission has already found a memorandum of notification signed by President Clinton in 1998 after the African embassy bombings that allowed CIA assets to kill bin Laden, and two commissioners, Fred Fielding and Richard Ben-Veniste, point this out to Ashcroft. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 132, 485]
Attack Brings Commission Together - Paradoxically, the effect of Ashcroft’s attack is to bring the Commission—made up of five Democrats and five Republicans—together. Shenon will comment, “The Republicans were just as angry as the Democrats over what Ashcroft had done, maybe angrier.” Commissioner Slade Gorton (R-WA) will add, “There was universal outrage on the part of all 10 people.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 332]

Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, Zacarias Moussaoui, Slade Gorton, Philip Shenon, Lee Hamilton, Khalid Almihdhar, 9/11 Commission, Bob Kerrey, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Fred F. Fielding, John Ashcroft, Nawaf Alhazmi, Richard Ben-Veniste

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

There were no pictures allowed of the Bush and Cheney joint testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Here are commissioners Thomas Kean, Fred Fielding, and Lee Hamilton preparing to begin the testimony.There were no pictures allowed of the Bush and Cheney joint testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Here are commissioners Thomas Kean, Fred Fielding, and Lee Hamilton preparing to begin the testimony. [Source: New York Times]President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear for three hours of private questioning before the 9/11 Commission. (Former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore met privately and separately with the Commission earlier in the month.) [New York Times, 4/30/2004; Washington Post, 4/30/2004]
Testifying Together, without Oaths or Recordings - The Commission permits Bush and Cheney, accompanied by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, to appear together, in private, and not under oath. Author Philip Shenon will comment that most of the commissioners think this is an “obvious effort… to ensure that the accounts of Bush and Cheney did not differ on the events of 9/11.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 342-343] Their testimony is not recorded. Commissioners can take notes, but these are censored by the White House. [Knight Ridder, 3/31/2004; Newsweek, 4/2/2004; New York Times, 4/3/2004]
Questions Similar to Those Asked of Clinton - The Commission draws its questions from a previously-assembled list of questions for Bush and Cheney that Commission members have agreed to ask. According to commissioner Bob Kerrey: “It’s essentially the same set of questions that we asked President Clinton with one exception, which is just what happened on the day of September 11th. What was your strategy before, what was your strategy on September 11, and what allowed the FAA to be so surprised by a hijacking?” [Washington Post, 4/29/2004]
'Three Hours of Softballs' - After Bush starts the meeting with an apology for an attack by Attorney General John Ashcroft on commissioner Jamie Gorelick (see April 13-April 29, 2004), the Democratic commissioners are disarmed. Commissioner Slade Gorton will comment: “They knew exactly how to do this. They had us in the Oval Office, and they really pulled the talons and the teeth out of many of the Democratic questions. Several of my colleagues were not nearly as tough in the White House as they were when we went in that day.” Author Philip Shenon will call it “three hours of softballs.” Some of the toughest questions are asked by Republican John Lehman, who focuses on money allegedly passed by an acquaintance of the Saudi ambassador’s wife to two of the hijackers (see December 4, 1999). Lehman will say that Bush “dodged the questions.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 343-345]
Cheney Says Little - Although the Commission’s Democrats are expecting Bush to defer to the vice president in his responses, reportedly Bush “thoroughly dominate[s] the interview.” Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, will later recall that Cheney only “spoke five percent of the time.” [Draper, 2007, pp. 292] According to four unnamed individuals that are in the room during the meeting, Cheney “barely spoke at all.” [Gellman, 2008, pp. 344] Gorelick will say: “There was no puppeteering by the vice president. He barely said anything.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 344]
Early Departure - Two commissioners, Lee Hamilton and Bob Kerrey, leave the session early for other engagements. They will later say they had not expected the interview to last more than the previously agreed upon two-hour length. [Associated Press, 5/1/2004]
'Unalloyed Victory' for Bush - The press’ reaction is so positive that Shenon will call the meeting an “unalloyed victory” for Bush. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 345]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, 9/11 Commission, Alberto R. Gonzales, Bob Kerrey, Philip Zelikow, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Jamie Gorelick, Philip Shenon, Lee Hamilton, Slade Gorton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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