WASHINGTON - President Bush's plan to appear before the Sept. 11 commission with Vice President Dick Cheney at his side violates a fundamental rule of investigations, but the panel accepted the unusual arrangement to get the president's cooperation.
As anyone who has ever watched a cop show knows, witnesses and suspects are best grilled alone to expose any inconsistencies in their stories.
"Get 'em alone, keep 'em alone, and don't even let them talk to each other immediately after, if you can help it," former New York police detective Robert Louden said Wednesday, recalling the tactics he used during his 21 years on the force. "In an ideal world, you want them separated."
But Louden, who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said normal rules don't necessarily apply to a case involving the president.
Bush insisted on the joint appearance in agreeing to take questions from all 10 members of the panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. He initially had offered to meet only with the commission's top two members, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the chairman; and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman.
No date has been set for the tag-team testimony. The arrangement virtually eliminates any possibility of divergent answers from Bush and Cheney, and lets Bush pass off any question he'd rather avoid and makes it impossible for the commission to ask either man any follow-up questions.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush proposed the joint session to streamline the question-and-answer process.
"This is a good way to help them get the information they need and do so in a timely manner," McClellan said. "They can talk to both of them and help better understand how to piece together all the information that they've already received."
Although the joint appearance has some advantages for Bush, it might also give new ammunition to critics who view Cheney as the real power in the White House and the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq.
Commission members accepted the arrangement Tuesday to end drawn-out negotiations over terms of Bush's appearance. Bush also insisted that he and Cheney testify in private without being placed under oath.
"This is an unusual situation. We've only got a limited amount of time to complete our work," said commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, a former prosecutor and one of the toughest questioners on the panel. "If this is an important condition, that both the president and vice president be in the room at the same time, we can accommodate that."
The panel faces a July 26 deadline for its final report. It also plans to hold separate sessions with former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is expected to testify in open session within the next two weeks.
Sitting presidents rarely appear before investigative panels or congressional committees, but it has happened. In 1975, Gerald Ford became the only sitting president to testify under oath at a congressional hearing when he went before the House Judiciary Committee to explain his pardon of former President Richard Nixon.
Kean said he saw no need to place Bush under oath. "We're happy just to have him talk to us," he told CBS Wednesday.
Although Bush and Cheney have a close working relationship, they rarely appear together in public, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush and Cheney have had little to say about the specifics of former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke's allegation that the administration downplayed the terrorist threat. But they have been consistent in defending their handling of the war on terror.
Cheney's initial effort to rebut Clarke seemed to backfire.
"He wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff," Cheney told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on March 22. "He clearly missed a lot of what was going on."
Two days later, Rice directly contradicted Cheney.
"I would not use the word out of the loop. He was in every meeting about terrorism," she said.
By appearing together, Bush and Cheney can avoid any similar embarrassments.
"We recognize that Mr. Bush may help Mr. Cheney with some of the answers," Kean joked on Tuesday, drawing laughter. "We think we can get the information we need."
© 2004 Knight-Ridder