Playing politics with the 9/11 commission

After months of stonewalling the panel's requests for information about the terror attacks, the White House is signaling that it opposes extra time to complete the probe.

Published January 24, 2004 11:22PM (EST)

For months, the Bush administration and the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks have been locked in low-intensity warfare. The White House opposed creation of the commission, and after it reluctantly yielded, it sought to bar the commission from seeing reams of documents pertaining to the attacks. The stonewalling went on so long that some commissioners say they're months behind in their work -- and yet, the White House is insisting that the May 27 deadline for the commission's final report shouldn't be extended.

The administration's apparent policy of delay and roadblock has outraged some members of Congress and a group representing families of 9/11 victims. But with hearings scheduled to resume Monday in Washington, a new frustration has emerged in recent days: Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton have thus far refused to ask for more time to conduct the investigation.

"I can't for the life of me understand why they don't ask for an extension," says Bill Harvey, a member of the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Independent Commission. "Without more time, the quality of the final report will be diminished."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped draft legislation creating the commission, this week offered a more pointed view: "They should have the guts to request it," he told "They know they have plenty of people who would support them and force votes. They've got to have the guts to formally request it. So far, they haven't shown that."

The commission has been probing how security broke down on the Bush administration's watch, and many analysts believe that the White House's tense relationship with the panel suggests its fear that the findings, if released just before the election, could be politically damaging. While some have suggested the commission needs only three extra months to finish its review of 200 interviews and 2 million documents, that would mean the committee's report could be released at the end of August. The Republicans are due to convene in New York from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 for a convention that will extol Bush's command of the war on terror and nominate him to run for a second term.

The White House has opposed the three-month extension, but some Republicans are now suggesting a compromise: a six-month extension that would push the final report's release back after the November election. "Six months is more politically viable than three months," a senior Republican congressional aide told Salon.

The commission's public hearings resume Monday, exploring the issues of border and aviation security. The two days of testimony are expected to detail intelligence and domestic security failures that allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to occur.

The statute that created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the panel is formally known, requires commissioners to complete their non-classified report for the president and Congress by May 27. The date was a central sticking point in the 2002 negotiations. The White House originally wanted the commission to have only a 12-month lifespan, but eventually agreed to 18 months. And while there is a provision in the statute to ask for an extension and more money to complete the investigation, the Bush administration has made it clear it opposes giving the panel any additional time.

Because of snags over funding and the selection of commissioners as well as ongoing problems getting access to key documents, some 9/11 commissioners have for months suggested more time will be needed. Commissioner Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, told Salon last November: "I think the White House has made it darn near impossible to get full access to the documents by May, much less get a full report out analyzing those documents by May." (Cleland has since left the panel in order to become a commissioner on the government-run Export-Import Bank.)

According to the Family Steering Committee, an informal survey of the 10 bipartisan 9/11 commissioners found that eight are in favor of an extension. The identity of the two holdouts is unclear. What is clear, though, is Kean, the former New Jersey governor, and Hamilton, a former member of Congress from Indiana, aren't asking for it.

"The take here is that Hamilton and Kean are just a little weak," says one congressional Democratic aide. "We're waiting for a formal extension request. But they need to make it. We can't do their work for them."

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg says commissioners met on Jan. 5 to discuss the possibility of seeking a two- or three-month extension and there was "a divergence of opinion." He says the "leadership of the commission was authorized to ascertain thoughts of the Hill and the White House on this issue. Over the break there was some reaction from the [House] speaker's office and the White House indicating the commission should go ahead with the deadline as planned."

More specifically, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told the Washington Post: "I can't imagine a situation where they get an extension."

The White House in recent days has argued against an extension by insisting the country, for the sake of its security, needs the important findings of the commission sooner rather than later. A Democratic source calls that a "contortion, given the administration's stonewalling behavior from the incipient moments of this commission."

"Obviously the White House fears the findings of the commission and they fear it politically," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose New York district includes the World Trade Center site. Family advocates concede the 9/11 commission, created strictly as a fact-finding body, has become wrapped up in an election year debate. "It's Washington, D.C. politics," Harvey says. "Everything is wired." Yet family members and commission supporters in Congress are hopeful there's still room for negotiations, and Harvey is among those who would favor a six-month extension if it meant getting a more accurate, final account of the Sept. 11 events.

For now, critics claim Kean and Hamilton's approach to the extension has been so polite that it almost seems timid. Especially in Washington, they say, agency and commission leaders need to forcefully stand up and ask for what they want if they expect to be taken seriously. "If Kean and Hamilton feel they need more time," Nadler says, "they ought to say so out loud and push it and not bow to the notion that Hastert and the White House control the events."

Asked about the criticism and whether Kean and Hamilton should adopt a different approach, Felzenberg said: "I won't discuss hypothetical or if it's right or wrong. Our policy right now, absent any actions, is to forge on with the current deadline."

By Eric Boehlert

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

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections George W. Bush