by Dan Eggen
Monday, Jan 19, 2004
President Bush and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have decided to oppose granting more time to an independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, virtually guaranteeing that the panel will have to complete its work by the end of May, officials said last week.
A growing number of commission members had concluded that the panel needs more time to prepare a thorough and credible accounting of missteps leading to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the White House and leading Republicans have informed the panel that they oppose any delay, which raises the possibility that Sept. 11-related controversies could emerge during the heat of the presidential campaign, sources said.
With time running short, the 10-member bipartisan panel has already decided to scale back the number and scope of hearings that it will hold for the public, commission members and staffers said. The commission 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.
Public hearings in coming months will include testimony from key Cabinet members in the Bush and Clinton administrations. The likely roster will include 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, two officials said. The next hearing, scheduled over two days beginning Jan. 26, will focus on border and aviation security issues.
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 be likely to be asked to testify publicly, several sources said.
The statute that created the panel in late 2002 requires commission members to complete a report for the president and Congress by May 27, with another 60 days available after that to issue supplemental documents or tie up loose ends, officials said. The commission has been beleaguered by organizational problems and fights with the Bush administration and New York over access to documents.
“We need at least a few more months to complete our work,” said commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who has pushed for more time. “We have a breathtaking task ahead of us, and we need enough time to make sure our work is credible and thorough.”
But the White House and Hastert’s office made clear during discussions over the past two weeks that they would strongly oppose any extension of the deadline, which would require congressional approval, officials said. One source described the issue Friday as “dead in the water.”
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said, “The administration has given them an unprecedented amount of cooperation . . . and we expect they will be able to meet that deadline.”
John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert, said there is little support for a delay in the Republican-controlled Congress. “I can’t imagine a situation where they get an extension,” Feehery said. “I don’t sense a lot of enthusiasm for considering that.”
As recently as December, the commission’s two leaders — former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean (R) and former representative Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) — said the panel would have enough time to complete its work. But commission members decided during a closed meeting earlier this month that they should explore the idea of a delay with the White House and Capitol Hill.
The commission’s handling of the deadline has angered a group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims, who argue that the panel has not been aggressive enough in demanding more time and in seeking key documents and testimony from the Bush administration.
Several relatives have also strongly criticized the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, because of his ties to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials.
Zelikow has 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, officials said.
Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed at the World Trade Center, said the interviews underscore a conflict-of-interest problem at the commission and cast serious doubts on the panel’s credibility.
“We’ve had it,” said Breitweiser, who met with several commission leaders last week. “It is such a slap in the face of the families of victims. They are dishonoring the dead with their irresponsible behavior.” Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said Zelikow and Gorelick were among more than 800 witnesses who have been interviewed so far and said their experiences in national security are relevant to the panel’s investigation. “Whether these people were involved in this commission or not, they may have well made this list because of the perspective they would have had about the work of the government during the time in question,” he said.