by Robert Cohen
New Jersey Star-Ledger
Monday, Feb 16, 2004
WASHINGTON — Another showdown between the national commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the White House may be in the offing, this time over whether all of the panel’s 10 members or only some of them will be able to interview President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
The White House announced Friday evening that Bush had agreed to a request from former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the commission’s chairman, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman, to meet in a closed-door session to discuss the 9/11 disaster. But it now appears the White House is trying to limit how many commissioners will meet with the president during the private session.
Some commissioners expressed anger yesterday over the possible restrictions, which could add to the friction that already exists between the investigative panel and the White House.
Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, said the letter to Bush inviting him to appear in private session was “clearly written by Kean and Hamilton on behalf of the entire commission.”
“The president accepted the invitation to meet with the commission,” Felzenberg said. “Obviously negotiations will have to ensue.”
Felzenberg said Cheney is placing conditions on his appearance, indicating a willingness to meet with “representatives of the commission.” Negotiations are continuing with the vice president, he said.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said it is “disappointing the president created the impression he was accepting our invitation” to meet with all 10 members of the panel, and then a spokesman later offered a different view of what had been “a reasonable interpretation.”
“The commission is quite clear that the decision about who attends any interviews is a decision made by the commission and not anyone else,” said Ben-Veniste, a Democrat and a former Watergate prosecutor. Bush has said he “wants to be cooperative with the commission, and it creates the expectation that he will,” Ben-Veniste said.
Commissioner Tim Roemer, like Hamilton a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said the White House’s position on the presidential interview is unacceptable, and represents the latest attempt by the administration to impede the investigation and to backtrack on what appeared to be commitments of cooperation.
“I hope President Bush and Vice President Cheney cannot just select a couple of commissioners and isolate all the others,” Roemer said. “The commission can’t let this happen. The testimony from Bush and Cheney is too important and absolutely too vital.”
Roemer said all of the commissioners need to hear directly from Bush on what he knew before Sept. 11, 2001, what he was thinking and how he responded on the day of the attacks.
Shutting out members of the commission from asking questions will undermine the “independence and integrity” of the final report, Roemer said.
The panel, among other issues, wants to question Bush about a White House intelligence briefing the president received in August 2001 that suggested al Qaeda might be planning terrorist strikes using commercial airplanes.
Almost 3,000 people died when terrorists hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Kean said Saturday that Bush will not testify under oath, and that some of the information he provides will be classified and have to be kept secret from the public.
But he said it is “rare for presidents to testify at all” and he was “delighted” by Bush’s willingness to meet with the panel.
Kean could not be reached for comment yesterday about the new White House stance on the president’s commission interview, a story first reported yesterday in The Washington Post. The White House declined yesterday to comment.
The new controversy follows a series of other problems between the White House and the commission.
For months, the commission had trouble getting access to highly classified presidential briefing papers, but finally reached a compromise in November to allow a few members to view the sensitive documents.
The panel last week agreed to accept a summary of the presidential intelligence papers prepared by a four-member commission review team and edited by the White House.
The commission voted against subpoenaing the original documents, with three members, including Roemer, dissenting and arguing that the summary gave them an inadequate view of what Bush and former President Bill Clinton and other top policy-makers knew and how they responded to the terrorist threat.
The commission has had to subpoena documents from several administration agencies that did not cooperate. It also tangled with the White House over a need for an extension of its May 27 deadline to complete its report.
After opposing such an extension, the president recently agreed to an extra two months, but opposition from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has created uncertainty whether the panel will have sufficient time to complete a comprehensive report.