Though he still refuses to hand over “very sensitive documents,” President Bush insisted on Monday that his staff is cooperating fully with the commission set up to “prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.”
Formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the commission was created by Congress last year over the initial objections of the White House. When Bush finally signed the agency into existence, he said, “The Commission will build upon the work of the congressional joint inquiries to carefully examine the circumstances surrounding the attacks and the lessons to be learned from them. I expect that the Commission’s final report will contain important recommendations for steps that can be taken to improve our preparedness for and response to terrorist attacks in the future.”
Now, however, the White House might risk a courtroom battle with the independent investigators about denying access to documents requested by the commission. The papers could show whether Bush was negligent about the threat of the Al-Qaida before 9/11.
The commission chairman, Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey, has already demonstrated his determination to follow through, when he subpoenaed various tapes, statements, interview reports and agency self-assessments concerning the Sept. 11 attacks from the Federal Aviation Authority. Kean told the New York Times last week that, “Any document that has to do with 9/11 we have to see it — anything. There are a lot of theories about 9/11, and as long as there is any document out there that bears on any of those theories, we’re going to leave questions unanswered. And we cannot leave questions unanswered.”
The Los Angeles Times thinks the Bush administration would be better off handing over the docs, since the administration’s silence is only feeding more 9/11 conspiracy theories:
“Today, a persistent strain of conspiracy theory overseas clouds the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, usually claiming prior U.S. government knowledge of — even responsibility for — the attacks. That, and the peace of mind of 9/11 families, are both good reasons for the Bush administration to cooperate more freely with the 9/11 investigating panel headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean. ”
Kean stressed that he is prepared to subpoena the documents if they are not turned over within weeks. While he isn’t publicly specifying what documents he is seeking, many observers believe they include the daily updates about foreign affairs that the President receives from the CIA. Many believe that these so-called Presidential Daily Briefings might, along with other classified White House documents, have contained warning signs about an impending Al-Qaida attack. Last year the White House acknowledged that Mr Bush had been briefed in August 2001, a month before the attacks, that the Al-Qaida might try to hijack American passenger planes. (Though, as far as we know, nobody then had reason to suspect the terrorists would fly planes into buildings.) Bush cites “National Security Concerns” as the reason for not releasing the documents, but most commentators agree that it’s in the national interest to establish the truth about what happened.
The Star Tribune is speculating on the reason for the administration’s stonewalling:
“There’s no real surprise in this. The Bush administration has used every means at its disposal, including many that go way over the line of responsible national leadership, to avoid accountability in the Sept. 11 attacks and in the bogus justification it offered for war with Iraq.
Some of the documents Kean wants are extremely sensitive, and Kean acknowledges that. But as Kean argues, the commission is unique; it isn’t Congress, and presidential privilege doesn’t apply. Commission member Max Cleland, former senator from Georgia, goes further. ‘It’s obvious that the White House wants to run out the clock here,’ he told the Times. The commission must finish its work by May of next year. ‘It’s Halloween, and we’re still in negotiations with some assistant White House counsel about getting these documents — it’s disgusting.’
Cleland’s a Democrat, but commission member Slade Gorton isn’t. He’s a former Republican senator from Washington. And he’s as concerned about the May deadline as Cleland. Gorton told the Times he was ‘startled by the ‘indifference’ of some executive branch agencies in making material available to the commission.’ Another Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is urging the families of 9/11 victims to use their clout to force the administration’s cooperation. And if the commission can’t finish up by May, McCain said he’s willing to push for an extension. That wouldn’t be necessary if the White House would get off the dime. Sure it’s nervous about the information it is being asked to turn over. That’s probably why it didn’t want this commission in the first place. But is the source of its nervousness its concern for the security of classified information? Or is it nervous because it fears the political repercussions of what the information includes?”
Currently, the 10-member, bipartisan commission has until May 27, 2004 to submit a report. But if the White House keeps stalling, the commission will consider extending the deadline by several months. The Idaho Statesman comments on the pressures of meeting that deadline:
“Of all the things that shouldn’t be partisan, a full understanding of the Sept. 11 attacks should top the list.
Must it really come to this? Aren’t we all working for the same government here? Doesn’t everybody have the same goal — to make sure there is never another 9/11 that needs to be investigated?
And to complicate things further, the commission is supposed to finish its work by May 27. It has seven months to sift through documents, including, but not limited to, the 2 million pages already in hand. Then it must come up with recommendations and complete its report. That doesn’t leave time to play games. So Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the bill creating the commission, already is wondering aloud whether the White House is just looking to outlast the panel, and whether the committee’s lifespan should be extended. ‘After claiming they wanted to find the truth about Sept. 11, the Bush administration has resorted to secrecy, stonewalling and foot dragging,’ Lieberman said Sunday.”
Continuing the administration’s curious approach of pledging support while withholding documents, White House press secretary Scott McClellan sid yesterday: “There are a lot of ways to provide information to the commission. We will continue working with them to make sure they have the information they need to complete their work and meet the deadline that Congress created.” Indeed, meeting that deadline could turn out to be crucial for Team Bush. Here’s the Las Vegas Sun:
“The White House, worried that the report’s findings could become a campaign issue if it’s released shortly before the election, will be counting on the GOP-controlled Congress to fend off an extension. This administration is notorious for its secrecy, but it surprises us that it would stonewall a bipartisan commission that is investigating the worst terrorist attack against the United States. If there are more delays, Republican leaders in Congress should set aside partisanship and extend the commission’s deadline by several months. This is a job where shortcuts can’t be tolerated.”