Kristen Breitweiser, Mindy Kleinberg, Lori Van Auken, Patty Casazza -- the four World Trade Center widows from New Jersey who led the fight for an independent investigation of 9/ 11 -- have given us an edifying lesson in grass-roots democracy. Without money, fame or credentials, they have achieved extraordinary influence over a crucial public policy issue. Yesterday they made the front page of the New York Times.
Yet the widows worry that their inspiring story may be destined for a cynical conclusion. The "Jersey girls" embody the streetwise skepticism of their home state. And they think they smell a rat.
Over the past two years, they and their supporters in several 9/11 family organizations have imposed their demands for truth on a reluctant White House again and again. They pushed President Bush to endorse, fund and extend the mandate of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States. They humiliated Henry Kissinger into stepping down as Bush's handpicked commission chairman because of his obvious conflicts of interest and record of mendacity. They have now embarrassed Bush himself into agreeing to submit to questioning by the commission, although he has insisted on bringing along Vice President Dick Cheney as his minder. And of course, they blasted away the excuses used by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to avoid testifying before the commission in public session and under oath.
To the four widows, those political victories represent a reason for pride but not complacency. They remain at battle stations, as Rice might say, concerned about the commission's integrity and credibility. What troubles them most at the moment is the role of Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director.
Zelikow is a professor of history at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His qualifications to run the 9/11 commission are more than academic, however. During the first Bush administration he served on the National Security Council staff, and at the beginning of the second Bush administration he was appointed to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). He also happens to be a longtime confidant, collaborator and friend of Rice, with whom he authored a book on German reunification in 1995 -- and whom he advised on the restructuring of the National Security Council during the Bush transition in late 2000.
Former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke revealed that Zelikow, as a member of the Bush transition team, had been extensively briefed on al-Qaida terrorism by the outgoing Clinton national security officials. When the widows learned first of Zelikow's close relationship with Rice and then of his presence at the terrorism briefings, they were outraged.
"As executive director, he has pretty much the most important job on the commission," said Mindy Kleinberg. "He hires the staff, he sets the direction and focus, he chooses witnesses at the hearings." She and her friends fear that even with the best of intentions, Zelikow's connections to the Bush White House will "taint the validity" of the commission's final report. Their demand that he resign or be fired has been rejected by the commission's co-chairmen, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton.
"We respectfully disagree with them," replied Al Felzenberg, the commission's press spokesman, who said Zelikow was chosen "for his scholarly credentials and his knowledge of national security issues." He hastened to praise the widows for doing "a very positive thing," adding that while he understood their concerns, he expected that "they're not going to be satisfied with everything we do."
According to Felzenberg, Zelikow has "recused" himself from any deliberations that involve the Bush transition -- and insisted on being interviewed, under oath, about that period by the commission staff. The spokesman said he didn't know whether Zelikow had helped Rice to restructure the NSC.
But Zelikow's recusal doesn't impress Kleinberg. "His conflict is so large that he can't overcome it," she said. "We asked everybody at the beginning to put their conflicts on the table. Philip Zelikow's conflicts were not all put out there at the beginning." She and her friends were particularly disturbed to learn that the Virginia professor had played a key role in advising Rice during the transition, when they believe "things went wrong" in counterterror policy.
"If he was there during the transition, making recommendations about restructuring the NSC, on prioritizing issues, on handling terrorism, on Iraq -- then how can he oversee the report on those issues?" Kleinberg asked.
Those are pertinent questions that deserve more than a patronizing answer. Although Felzenberg insists that the commission staff is nonpartisan and that the commission itself has behaved in an entirely bipartisan fashion, that unity showed signs of cracking last week during Clarke's testimony. And although Zelikow is highly qualified for the position he holds, he also suffers from a crippling problem of perception.
The simple fact is that the widows are right and the commission was wrong. This investigation should not have been directed by a Bush appointee -- especially not someone so closely associated with Rice and the National Security Council. Unlike many other qualified experts who could have undertaken this job, Zelikow owes a prestigious line on his résumé to Bush. Moreover, he has a vested interest in maintaining his relationship with the Bush administration.
That interest was revealed when commission critics voiced suspicions that Zelikow had been in contact with Bush political strategist Karl Rove. His spokesman Felzenberg didn't deny the allegation, saying only that they hadn't discussed the commission's business. "Like many others on the commission, he has a job he hopes to go back to afterwards," the spokesman explained. "The Miller Center is dedicated to the study of the presidency, and [Zelikow] has contacts with a wide range of people from all recent administrations."
It would be better if the chief investigator of the Bush presidency's worst disaster were not someone who may seek favors and cooperation from the White House when the investigation is concluded. His conflicts have placed a substantial burden on the commission's credibility -- and he should remember that the widows are watching him.