Bitter denunciations of the 9/11 commission suddenly flashed across the right-wing mediascape this week, marking the commencement of a Republican campaign to discredit the independent investigation of the terrorist attacks. With hindsight -- to quote a phrase often uttered by the commission's beleaguered witnesses -- the savaging of the investigative panel seems entirely predictable. All this is just another stage in the continuing conflict between the commission, whose bipartisan members seem genuinely interested in unearthing relevant facts despite their occasional quarreling, and the White House, which has concealed facts and stonewalled questions whenever possible.
Back when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney conducted their first preemptive strikes against the commission's very existence, they clearly anticipated serious problems should an independent body get its hands on pre-9/11 intelligence. Whatever they may have expected, the reality has been worse. From the damaging revelations by Richard Clarke and other former officials to the breaching of the secrecy of the President's Daily Briefing to the humiliating flip-flop on Condoleezza Rice's testimony, the commission's proceedings have repeatedly embarrassed the White House. Now its friends in Congress and the media are striking back in anger.
Spearheading the assault was Attorney General John Ashcroft, who determined before testifying that taking the offensive was the only strategy that might save him from sounding totally defensive. He was painfully aware, in the days before his appearance, that the commission's staff had collected copious evidence showing his neglect of counterterrorism issues during the administration's first nine months. Thomas Pickard, the former acting director of the FBI, had told the commission that in 2001, Ashcroft omitted terrorism from the Justice Department's top priorities, rebuffed his pleas for increased counter-terror funding and directed Pickard to cease briefing him on terrorist threats.
Blustering denials might not be sufficient to suppress such bad publicity. So while the attorney general pompously assured the commissioners that their work "can serve a noble purpose," he sought to intimidate them by launching a broadside against the Clinton administration, in the form of a bitter personal attack on former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick. His tool was a hastily declassified 1995 Justice Department memorandum, written by Gorelick, that limited communications between intelligence agents and criminal investigators. According to Ashcroft, that memo stopped the FBI and the CIA from apprehending the al-Qaida agents lurking in the U.S. during the "summer of threat" as they prepared for the Sept. 11 hijackings. He didn't explain why his own deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson, endorsed precisely the same 1995 guidelines on Aug. 6, 2001. Neither did the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which swiftly seconded Ashcroft's attack on Gorelick, whom it accused of a conflict of interest.
"It's such a big conflict of interest that the White House could hardly be blamed if it decided to cease cooperation with the 9/11 Commission pending Ms. Gorelick's resignation and her testimony under oath as a witness into the mind of the Reno Justice Department," barked the Journal. That editorial just happened to coincide perfectly with a press release from Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., demanding Gorelick's ouster. Somehow these sticklers aren't troubled by the close professional relationship -- and potential conflict of interest -- between Condoleezza Rice and the commission's executive director, Philip Zelikow, who worked on the Bush transition. In fact, both Zelikow and Gorelick have already given sworn testimony to the commission -- and both say they have recused themselves from dealing with issues where they might have a conflict.
What the attempt to blame Gorelick for the manifest failures of the FBI and the CIA really exposed, however, was the reflexive ideological desire to find scapegoats associated with former President Clinton, the right's great Satan. Only Osama bin Laden is responsible for the tragic destruction wreaked on 9/11, conservatives solemnly declare -- but whenever the opportunity arises, they rush to hang Clinton on the same scaffold.
That old impulse may backfire, as it did on Ashcroft. In his opening remarks -- after pompously reminding his audience that he had sworn to tell the truth -- the attorney general made a startling assertion that turned out to be false. He insisted that the Clinton administration had never ordered the assassination of bin Laden. In fact, he claimed to have reviewed the previous administration's authorizations against bin Laden almost as soon as he took office in February 2001.
"Let me be clear," said Ashcroft. "My thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill bin Laden." In other words, all the former Clinton officials who had sworn otherwise, including Clarke, must be lying.
A few minutes later, members of the commission dryly informed Ashcroft that he was badly mistaken. Without saying so directly as to compromise classified material, Richard Ben-Veniste and Fred Fielding both indicated that the commission had obtained a 1998 Clinton "memorandum of notification" specifically targeting the al-Qaida chieftain. Evidently the commission staff found this important document among the Clinton papers withheld by the White House until very recently (and disgorged only after a public complaint by Clinton attorney Bruce Lindsey). It would be interesting to find out why that particular item was held back from the commission by White House lawyers. After being told that the "MON" contradicted his accusation, Ashcroft was forced to swallow his words. He ended up promising that "we'll work to understand that more thoroughly."
The theme of the Republican campaign against the 9/11 commission is that, as the Journal charged, Democrats are using it for "partisan purposes." (The New York Post echoed the Journal Wednesday with a front-page editorial headlined "National Disgrace," which decried the partisan "hijacking" of the commission's work -- but saved its toughest words for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who has been reserved in his response to the commission's devastating recent revelations.)
The fact is, the bipartisan commission has been remarkably united on its core issues. Republican commissioners have stood with their Democratic counterparts on many of the most fundamental questions and concerns. It was Chairman Thomas Kean, a lifelong Republican and friend of the president's father, who sharply rejected the charges of partisanship and the calls for Gorelick's resignation. It was Commissioner Slade Gorton, a hard-line conservative and former Republican senator, who reminded Ashcroft of the facts about the Gorelick memo. It was Commissioner Fielding, a former Republican White House counsel, who questioned Ashcroft closely about his ignorance of Clinton's order to kill bin Laden.
The truth is that conservative critics of the commission aren't concerned about partisanship or conflict of interest. They are voicing the fears of political strategists in the White House. They seek to undermine the commission precisely because it is too bipartisan, too independent -- and too far beyond the reach of Karl Rove. But the commission just keeps on doing its work, and given the scope of what it's finding, the disinformation campaign about it doesn't seem likely to work.