WASHINGTON - President George W Bush said he and Vice President Dick Cheney answered every question on Thursday from the panel investigating the September 11 attacks and denied the joint appearance was aimed at keeping their story straight.
In comments afterward in the White House Rose Garden, Bush declared the extraordinary, more than three-hour session a success that he hoped would lead to recommendations about how to guard against future attacks, which he left open as a possibility.
He dismissed criticism from Democrats that he wanted to appear together with Cheney so they would not contradict each other and did not mention he had only met the commission under pressure from victims' families.
"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 how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we deal with threats," Bush said.
A key area of questioning for Bush was his response to an August 6, 2001, presidential intelligence memo entitled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike In US."
It said al Qaeda members were in the US before the September 11, 2001, commercial airliner attacks and that the FBI had detected suspicious patterns of activity "consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."
Bush has said the memo's usefulness was limited because it did not point to a specific target. He did not appear to give any ground on that position.
Former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke has said Bush did not heed his warnings that al Qaeda was an urgent threat.
The commission of five Republicans and five Democrats issued a statement saying Bush and Cheney had been "forthcoming and candid" and their input would be of great assistance as it looks to complete a final report by July 26.
Two Democrats on the panel, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton and former US Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, left the session about an hour early. Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana, was said to have had a prior commitment to introduce visiting Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin at a lunch.
Bush agreed under pressure to answer questions from all panel members for as long as necessary, but only on condition he have Cheney at his side and they meet in private, with no recording of the session. They were not under oath.
The meeting, with potential election-year ramifications, took place in the very heart of presidential power, the Oval Office, rather than in a room that would have provided a traditional table-and-chair setting.
Bush and Cheney took up opposite seats in front of the fireplace, and commission members were clustered in the room on couches and chairs.
Bush was joined by White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales and two other, unidentified White House lawyers who were there to take notes. The commission was allowed to bring one staffer for note-taking.
Past testimony established that elements of the US intelligence apparatus were aware of threats to American targets from the militant al Qaeda network, led by Osama bin Laden, before the September 11 attacks.
Bush was expected to have been asked why he did not launch the US government into battle stations based on the August 6 memo, which he received while on vacation in Texas.
Bush's advisers were worried the commission's findings will be critical of the president, who is running for re-election in November on his record of fighting terrorism. The panel is working to complete its final report by July 26, well into the campaign season.
Asked if al Qaeda operatives were in the US today, Bush said he could not rule it out but would not get into any details. "We are still vulnerable to attack," he said.
On Capitol Hill, US House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, criticised Bush and Cheney for demanding that they appear together.
"I think the only advantage to them doing it together is that their comments be consistent. But I really think that the whole process would have been better served if the president had gone in alone and the vice president had gone in alone."