The 9-11 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the Congressional bipartisan commission reluctantly approved by President George W. Bush last year, takes two steps forward but is then forced two steps back in its search to learn what happened prior to 9/11.
Under the direction of former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, the Commission has struggled from the beginning with federal government agencies it says have been slow to cooperate.
Nevertheless, everyday, dozens of lawyers, police officers and retired government officials pour over nearly 400,000 pages of White House, CIA and FBI documents. Also under review are transcripts of interviews with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attack.
The Commission has also analyzed what many critics consider to be vital to the complete understanding of 9/11—the communications between the White House and officials of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Getting the NORAD documents was—as usual—tough. Two weeks ago, the commission announced it had subpoenaed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents after learning the agency had failed to voluntarily turn over tapes and other records.
Now Kean wants the White House to relinquish the daily briefings prepared by the CIA for President Bush. And the President—who had hoped to avoid a Commission in the first place—has steadfastly refused to turn those papers over.
Consistent with its ongoing pattern, the Bush administration has ignored Dean's request. As long ago as July, the commission complained that the Bush administration refused access to the most critical papers.
Kean feels that his only recourse is to subpoena more documents including the pre-9/11 White House intelligence briefings. In a recent conversation with the New York Times, Kean said that
"Anything 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."
Kean argues that presidential privilege, which the White House claims, doesn't apply. The commission and its mission, according to Kean, are unique.
For Bush, stonewalling may hurt his re-election prospects. Commission member Max Cleland, former Democratic 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 fellow commission member Slade Gordon, the former Republican senator from Washington, is equally concerned about the May deadline. Gorton told the Times he was "startled by the 'indifference' of some executive branch agencies in making material available to the commission."
In two separate but equally ominous signs for Bush, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is urging the families of 9/11 victims to use their leverage to force the White House to cooperate. And if the commission can't finish up by May, McCain said he'd push for an extension.
One of Bush's potential opponents in 2004, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, promises to join McCain on the Senate floor to argue for more time.
Lieberman, a co-author of the legislation creating the independent commission said,
"After claiming they wanted to find the truth about September 11th, the Bush Administration has resorted to secrecy, stonewalling, and foot dragging. They have resisted this inquiry at every turn."
Even with subpoenas likely, the White House stalls. And the country is left to wonder why.
One obvious answer is that Bush is afraid of the repercussions of complete disclosure. As Cleland said, "As each day goes by, we learn that this government knew a whole lot more about these terrorists before 9/11 than it ever admitted."
The ultimate irony is that the Bush administration has exploited the terrorist attacks for maximum political purposes. No speech by Bush or his staff is complete without references to "9/11" or "terrorism."
And you can expect more of the same as the election draws closer.
For the sake of the nation, Bush should cooperate fully with the 9/11 Commission. Let the chips fall where they may.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.