From the very beginning, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, known as the 9/11 commission, has differed from the White House over funding, documents, witnesses and secrecy. But as National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice prepares to testify publicly on Thursday, the commission and the administration agreed on at least one key issue: Both defended Philip Zelikow, the Rice friend and colleague who serves as the commission's executive director, from critics concerned about his apparent conflicts of interest.
Those critics -- including the four World Trade Center widows whose political activism spurred the commission's creation -- have become increasingly disturbed as they've discovered more about Zelikow's close and continuing connections with Rice and the Bush administration. They point to the Republican academic's intense work on the Bush national security transition team; his role in restructuring the National Security Council; his 2001 appointment to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board; his drafting of the president's National Security Strategy in 2002; and his continuing contacts with White House officials, including political strategist Karl Rove.
Asked about criticism of their top staffer by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert April 3, commission co-chairmen Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton defended him strongly. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, lauded Zelikow as "one of the best experts on terrorism in the whole area of intelligence in the entire country" and "the best possible person we could have found for the job," and insisted, "We haven't found ... any evidence to indicate in any way that he's partial to anybody or anything. In fact, he's been much tougher, I think, than a lot of people would have liked him to be." Hamilton, a retired Democratic congressman from Indiana, agreed, adding that he saw "no evidence of a conflict of interest of any kind." Zelikow, they added, has "recused himself" from any portion of the investigation that might reflect on his work in the Bush White House.
Appearing immediately after Kean and Hamilton to promote her new book, celebrated Bush advisor and confidante Karen Hughes echoed their defense of Zelikow, describing him in rather extravagant terms as "one of the foremost experts in the world on al-Qaida." In a virtuoso bit of spin, Hughes insisted that Zelikow's role in the transition was in fact a "refutation" of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, who says the Bush team minimized the Islamist terror threat. "We were concerned enough that we recruited one of the foremost experts to brief the new administration about the threat of al-Qaida," Hughes told Russert.
A brief examination of Zelikow's résumé reveals that those endorsements of his expertise are exaggerated, to put it politely.
Certainly he is a capable and experienced foreign policy expert, administrator and author, respected by both Democrats and Republicans. His interests have ranged widely. His academic career focused on Cold War issues, from the Cuban missile crisis to the fall of the Soviet Union, and he isn't a partisan ideologue. But the long list of his writings includes only one article focused on terrorism, which he co-authored with former CIA director John Deutch. He is certainly not among the world's "foremost experts" on al-Qaida, a topic on which he appears to have written nothing, and he is very unlikely to have briefed the new administration on that threat. In fact, Zelikow was present at the meeting where Clarke briefed Rice about the Islamist terror network.
The 9/11 widows' worries about Zelikow's impartiality were underlined by news that the Bush White House had withheld up to 80 percent of the relevant Clinton-era documents from the commission's investigators. Back in February, the commission learned from Clinton attorney Bruce Lindsey, who handles archival issues for the former president, that Bush officials were in fact holding back some 9,000 pages. Yet Zelikow appears to have done little to break the documents loose from the White House -- which has withheld some of them since last summer -- until Lindsey went public with his complaint last week. On Friday, after a day of bad publicity, the White House suddenly agreed to let the commission examine the withheld documents.
Although Zelikow said that he had been "negotiating" with the White House over the withheld Clinton documents since February, he didn't tell commission members about the ongoing dispute. At least two Democratic commission members told the New York Times that they had been "surprised" to learn about the withheld documents last week.
Why would Zelikow have failed to tell members of the commission that the White House was holding back potentially critical documents from the Clinton archive? It's worth noting that he has repeatedly betrayed contempt for the Clinton administration's foreign policy record -- and expressed strong support for Bush policies, including the invasion of Iraq -- in articles for conservative and mainstream publications.
From the White House perspective, those may be his most important qualifications to oversee this potentially devastating investigation. What's harder to understand is why Kean and Hamilton are defending Zelikow with superlatives about his status as a terrorism expert. Hamilton went so far as to say he doesn't think Zelikow's White House ties "will taint the [commission's] report. Indeed, I think it'll let him improve the report."
That's hard to imagine. Admittedly, both co-chairs are in a politically difficult position as they try to coax or coerce greater cooperation from the White House, and perhaps going easy on Zelikow lets them play rough in other areas. But echoing Karen Hughes and touting his alleged terror expertise experience costs them credibility with the victims' families -- and with the wider American public as the damning details of what led to 9/11 become public.