Is the 9/11 commission too soft?

Family members of those who died on Sept. 11 are beginning to worry about the gentle treatment the outside commission is giving the White House.

Published October 10, 2003 10:44PM (EDT)

Late last month, the heads of the independent commission created by Congress to investigate the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave the White House two weeks, until Oct. 6, to turn over all the remaining documents requested by the commission. The deadline has come and gone, with no apparent penalty.

And now, some increasingly impatient family members of 9/11 victims are becoming critical of the commission, known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and what they see as its gentle treatment of the White House. They're also raising concerns about potential conflict of interest with the commission's chief investigator.

The Bush administration has still not delivered all the papers requested, including highly sensitive intelligence briefings that could shed light on what President Bush knew about an al-Qaida threat prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. Facing a daunting May 2004 cutoff date for its final, sprawling report, the commission late last month made a public plea for the documents, some of which were first requested six months ago. "We are approaching a crunch point," said Lee Hamilton, former Democratic Indiana congressman and vice chairman of the commission.

But according to family advocates, when the Oct. 6 deadline came and went earlier this week, the consequences were negligible. They said they were told that negotiations with the White House have simply been extended in the hope that the administration will make the classified documents, or at least descriptions of them, available.

"It sends a terrible message," says Bill Harvey, whose new bride was killed on Sept. 11. "Why aren't they exercising their subpoena power? If they want the document, go get it."

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg says "there has been movement" in the negotiations, and notes that the White House has not, as some feared, invoked executive privilege to shield any information. Commissioners are drafting a statement regarding the status of the documents and will likely release it this week. Felzenberg stresses that most of the documents have been received, including many highly sensitive papers, and that the still-missing request represents just "half or 1 percent" of those targeted.

He also notes that due to the sensitivity of the request, how the documents are handled is of utmost concern. "They're not something you Xerox. We're going to resolve this in a way that makes all parties comfortable. That's the nature of negotiations," says Felzenberg. "At some point there will be resolution."

The commission won't confirm, but it's assumed one of the still-missing documents is the crucial Aug. 6, 2001, daily presidential briefing that Bush received while vacationing in Crawford, Texas, which, according to published accounts, warned of Osama bin Laden's intention to hijack planes in the United States. The White House has since said the warnings were vague in nature.

For 9/11 family advocates who were instrumental last year in lobbying -- over White House objections -- for the creation of the commission, the missed deadline is just the latest example of what they say is the task force's laid-back approach toward unearthing crucial answers about Sept. 11 and how the attack on America could occur. They point to lackluster public hearings where nobody has testified under oath, subpoena power that's gone unused, and worrisome public comments from Hamilton, who recently stressed that document negotiations with the White House "have been carried on in a very congenial atmosphere."

"They want to run it in a polite, friendly fashion," complains Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband on Sept. 11. "Our confidence level is waning. There seems to be no sense of urgency."

There's a growing concern that the committee sees its job as putting the events of 9/11 in historical perspective and offering up some general policy suggestions, as opposed to getting to the bottom of a crime of mass murder.

Separately, family members are raising conflict-of-interest concerns about the commission's staff director, Philip Zelikow, the man at the center of the White House document negotiations. Although they were aware last winter when he was appointed that Zelikow had coauthored a book in the 1990s with Bush's current national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, family members only recently discovered that Zelikow also worked on Bush's 2000 transition team and was instrumental in dramatically reshaping and downsizing the National Security Council for the new administration. Today, some of the documents the commission and Zelikow are seeking come from the NSC: specifically, minutes from the spring and summer of 2001 when the CIA and other intelligence agencies were warning that an attack by al-Qaida could well be imminent.

"It's very unsettling," says Breitweiser. "If something in those documents has to do with how the NSC was set up -- that it failed to heed warnings about al-Qaida or was not communicating well with intelligence because of its insular structure -- and Philip Zelikow was responsible for the NSC's structure, how doggedly would he pursue the documents?"

Adds Lori Van Auken, who also lost her husband on 9/11, "If Zelikow set up the NSC and it was deficient, that's his baby."

The advocates, part of the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission, wrote to the commission late last week urging Zelikow to either remove himself from any portions of the investigation addressing the NSC, or resign.

The commission is in the process of responding to the Steering Committee's letter, and will address the recusal issue. "They have great faith and confidence in Philip," says commission spokesman Felzenberg. He also insists Zelikow has not spoken with White House political advisor Karl Rove during the negotiations for documents.

Along with serving on Bush's transition team, Zelikow also served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003. And, according to U.S. News & World Report, Zelikow contributed ideas to 2002's National Security Strategy, a White House document submitted to Congress outlining the new Bush Doctrine of preemptive strikes.

He's clearly an admirer of Bush. Following the attacks of 9/11, Zelikow, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, offered high praise for the president, telling CBS News, "This is a test, and because of this test, he's had to reach down and find other qualities in himself. And he's found them. He reaches down and finds some of the best elements in his character. He is being authentic and plainspoken."

But as the White House talks drag on, family members complain that they've seen this go-slow approach from the administration before, namely Congress' joint intelligence inquiry, which examined failures that led to 9/11. Its relatively narrow scope came about after Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney personally phoned then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in late January 2002, pressuring him to limit the congressional investigation surrounding Sept. 11.

Despite budget restraints and complaints from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that the White House had "slow-walked and stonewalled" the joint inquiry, the panel's 900-page report was completed late last year. Then it sat in limbo for nearly nine months while committee staff negotiated with the White House and its intelligence agencies over what portions could and could not be released in the public version.

It was finally released in August, complete with some major redactions, including 28 blacked-out pages that dealt with the interaction between Saudi businessmen and the royal family and whether they intentionally or unwittingly aided al-Qaida or the Sept. 11 hijackers. Despite urging from Democrats and Republicans as well as the Saudi royal family, Bush refused to declassify the 28 pages, insisting that the revelations would jeopardize intelligence "sources and methods."

It's another reason for the families' dissatisfaction. "The frustration is we even had to lobby for the commission in the first place," says Van Auken. "And that we still have to fight to get a report that resembles a real investigation and determines what went wrong."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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