Vice chairman: Bush 9/11 session 'marvelous'
President cites 'good discussion'
From John King
CNN Washington Bureau
|ON CNN TV|
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The 9/11 panel cites fragmented intelligence-gathering.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The vice chairman of the commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said the panel on Thursday learned new information in the more than three hour discussion with President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
"Oh, yes. A good bit," said Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, when asked if the commission had learned anything new.
"We had a marvelous meeting with the president," Hamilton said. "The president's comments were very candid, very forthcoming and he was interested in what we had to say."
The session was said to include an apology for Justice Department criticism of a Democratic commission member and a detailed account of how the White House responded in the initial hours after the terrorist attacks.
A commission source on hand for the more than three-hour session described it as "friendly and relaxed" and said both Bush and Cheney faced pointed but respectful questions.
The source said new information, at least in its context, was received by the commission even though the source considered the answers "somewhat predictable."
This and a second commission source said Bush dealt with the bulk of the questioning.
The second source described the president as "clearly aware" of other accounts provided to the commission, including the very critical testimony of former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke.
Both sources, and an administration official, said the president was adamant in saying he saw little new in an August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing suggesting al Qaeda wanted to strike in the United States.
As he has said publicly before, Bush noted the preponderance of the intelligence suggested al Qaeda was planning attacks on U.S. interests overseas.
The president took issue with Clarke's account that warnings went unheeded, saying he constantly asked CIA Director George Tenet if there was new or specific information about al Qaeda's planning.
The commission already has compiled what one of the sources described as an exhaustive chronology of steps the government took in the minutes and hours after the attacks.
Most of the questions directed at Cheney dealt with that aspect of the commission's work, because of his role at the White House in coordinating much of the initial response.
Both 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.
Bush said one concern was a number of international flights headed toward the United States that some initial reports to the White House suggested might have been hijacked or were not responding to efforts to communicate with the pilots, according to one of the commission sources.
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.
The president initially opposed the creation of the commission, and the agreement under which he and the vice president fielded questions took months to negotiate.
Bush, however, stressed cooperation in his public comments, and also made a clear effort to publicly distance himself from Republican efforts to cast Democrats on the commission as overly partisan.
In his testimony to the commission, Attorney General John Ashcroft said panelist and former Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick was responsible for a "wall" that kept criminal and anti-terrorism investigators from working together.
The department then provided more documents on the issue to the commission at its request, and made the decision to declassify them and make them public this week.
In a highly unusual move, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan publicly said the president was "disappointed" with the department's decision to make the documents public and that the White House had relayed its displeasure to the department.
McClellan also said that in greeting the commission in the Oval Office, Bush expressed his disappointment to the commission -- including Gorelick -- and said he did not want to be part of what McClellan called "finger pointing."