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Bush prepares for appearance before 9/11 panel

President, Cheney to answer questions

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George W. Bush
Dick Cheney
White House
September 11 attacks

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush "will tell exactly how it happened" when he meets privately Thursday with the independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September, 11, 2001, a White House spokesman said Tuesday.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will answer questions from the 10 commissioners in a joint appearance that has drawn criticism from some Democrats, who question why the president will not appear before the panel by himself.

Neither the president nor vice president will be sworn during the closed-door session at the White House -- in contrast to witnesses who appeared before the panel in public -- and the session will not be recorded. Those in the room, however, can take notes.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush's decision to answer questions from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States indicates his desire to help the bipartisan panel "complete their important work."

"I look at it as the president is taking an extraordinary step in sitting down with the commission and answering whatever questions they may have and providing them with information that can help them piece together all the information they have been previously provided," McClellan said.

The Bush administration initially opposed the creation of the commission, which is charged with coming up with an authoritative account of the attacks, including any intelligence and security lapses. The commission will also draft recommendations on how to safeguard against possible future attacks.

The White House relented amid pressure from some 9/11 family members and it later backed down from its opposition to an extension of time for the commission.

The commission now has until July 26 to finalize its report, but that report may not be released publicly at that time, pending a security review by the White House.

Pressed by reporters why Bush would only appear with Cheney at his side, McClellan said a joint appearance would help the commission "piece together" the information.

"We are working together to learn the lessons of September 11," McClellan said.

McClellan said he did not expect Bush to have an opening statement. "I think the president is there to answer their questions," he said.

The session is scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the White House.

The president, the vice president, the 10 commissioners, a commission staff member, and White House Counsel Al Gonzales will be in the room.

McClellan said the president has been working with Gonzales to prepare for the question-and-answer session, reviewing materials and notes pertaining to the period prior to the 9/11 attacks to refresh his recollection of events.

He has also been preparing with his chief of staff, Andy Card, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who has testified publicly before the panel.

"The president will tell exactly how it happened, and that's why he's going back and looking at materials that were from that time period," McClellan said.

McClellan could not say if Bush and Cheney have been preparing together.

The White House expects the chair and vice chair of the commission to make public statements after the session.

Some witnesses at recent public hearings and statements by the commission have faulted the FBI and CIA for their policies and lack of cooperation before the 9/11 attacks.

The commission has been the subject of increasing criticism from some Republican lawmakers who say Democratic members appear to be more interesting in casting blame than finding solutions.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and Sean Loughlin contributed to this report.

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