White House officials, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill), have decided to oppose extending the time limit for work by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, "virtually guaranteeing that the panel" will have to be done with its work by the end of May, the Washington Post reported on January 19. According to the statute that created the panel in late 2002, commission members need to complete a report for the president and Congress by May 27. They will then have another 60 days to issue supplemental documents or tie up loose ends.
After months of stalling on even having a commission, then appointing Henry Kissinger to head it (and having to withdraw that appointment), the administration threw every conceivable road block in the commission's path, including the withholding of significant documents. Despite the growing consensus among commission members that they need more time, the president and his congressional allies want to move on and shut the investigation down. The administration appears to be concerned that an ongoing investigation would bleed into the election season and hurt the president's re-election chances.
"With time running short," the Washington Post reports, "the 10-member bipartisan panel [chaired by the former governor of New Jersey, Thomas Kean] has already decided to scale back the number and scope of hearings that it will hold for the public... .[and it] is rushing to finish interviews with as many as 200 remaining witnesses and to finish examining about 2 million pages of documents related to the attacks."
As Joe Conason pointed out in his column in the New York Observer, during in an early-January interview with the New York Times Kean was asked whether 9/11 could have been avoided. "Yes, there is a good chance that 9/11 could have been prevented by any number of people along the way,” Kean replied. “Everybody pretty well agrees our intelligence agencies were not set up to deal with domestic terrorism ... . They were not ready for an internal attack." Then, Conason writes, the Times asked whether "anyone in the Bush administration [had] any idea that an attack was being planned." Kean: "That is why we are looking at the internal papers. I can't talk about what's classified. [The] President's daily briefings are classified. If I told you what was in them, I would go to jail."
There are a number of high-powered witnesses yet to be heard from, including key Cabinet members in the Bush and Clinton administrations such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, CIA Director George J. Tenet, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former defense secretary William S. Cohen, and the current and former directors of the FBI. Commission representatives are also negotiating to secure private testimony from President Bush, former president Bill Clinton, Vice President Cheney and former vice president Al Gore. None of the four would likely be asked to testify publicly, the Washington Post reported. (The next hearing "will focus on border and aviation security issues.")
As late as mid-January, the administration was still willing to give the independent commission more time, according to a report by Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, if it would delay its report until after the elections. "Bush officials recently floated a surprise strategic switch," Isikoff wrote, "they might OK a delay, but only if the report were put off until December, thereby 'taking it out of the election,' a commission source told Isikoff.
The administration's decision to shut down the investigation cannot be good news for the victims' families and citizen watchdog groups that have been fighting tooth and nail since the commission was appointed.
"The momentous nature of the event requires that this commission not be rushed to complete its work," said Kyle Hence, co-founder of 9/11 Citizens Watch, a group created to ensure that answers and accountability arise from the Sept. 11 investigation, told GovExec.com.
"The commission is coming up with new information," said Kristen Breitweizer, who lost her husband, Ron, in the collapse of the World Trade Center. "As time goes by and more comes to light, we get a clearer picture of how this terrible thing happened. The commission's report will be the definitive official account. There is only one chance to get this right, so we plan to make sure they get all the time they need."
Another controversial matter arose recently when it was disclosed that Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director, has ties to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials.
According to the Washington Post, Zelikow "recused himself from issues connected to his role as an administration adviser in the early weeks of Bush's term, but he was also interviewed several months ago as a witness by the commission, officials said." Commission member Jamie Gorelick, a Democrat who served in the Clinton Justice Department, has also been interviewed as a witness.
"We've had it," Breitweiser told the Washington Post. It is such a slap in the face of the families of victims. They are dishonoring the dead with their irresponsible behavior."
By the end of January, after two days of hearing testimonies about the September 11 terror attacks, the independent commission announced it was formally requesting an extension of its deadline, from May 27 to July. The ball is in your court, Mr. Bush.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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