Out of Commission

Will the White House relent on extending the 9/11 commission’s deadline?

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John McCain and Joe Lieberman, the two senators who authored the bill creating an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks, are expected to introduce legislation this week to extend the panel’s deadline by eight months, to next January.

The 10-member bipartisan commission, officially called the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, has a May 27 deadline, but last week commissioners said that “much work remains” to be done, and requested a two month extension to ensure that they do “the best possible job.” The Bush administration has made it clear that it would oppose such an extension, fearing that the commission’s report, if released at the height of this year’s presidential campaign, could do Republicans political harm by revealing that the White House and the intelligence agencies could have done more to prevent the attacks.

Extending the deadline through the end of the year would allow the commission to complete its work while keeping its findings safely out of play until after the elections. It’s not clear, though, that the Bush administration will be open even to a longer extension, preferring instead to let the commission expire before fulfilling its mandate. Through Republican congressional leaders, the administration is likely to put up a fight.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration had already given the commission “unprecedented” cooperation in its probe, turning over more than 2.3 million pages of documents, giving commission members and staff more than 100 hours of agency-level briefings and granting more than 100 interviews.” But this tells less than the full story. The commisson has complained on and off since it was formed in late 2002 that the White House and Pentagon have been less than forthcoming, and late last year it threatened to subpoena both for documents not delivered.

Compounding the White House’s anxiety is the fact that the commission wants to question top administration officials in the coming months. Democratic commissioner Tim Roemer has said that “the presidents and vice presidents and national security advisers [from both the Clinton and Bush administrations] should appear.” While it’s unlikely that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Bill Clinton, or Al Gore will give sworn testimony, commissioners say they will be invited. Usually shielded from congressional testimony, national security advisers and White House staff may be required to testify under oath.

Lee H. Hamilton, a commissioner and former Democratic congressman, said last week that he was “mindful of the politics” involved in any extension, but that “if we do not have the extra time, we would not have as many hearings as we would like.”

A hint at the kind of information the panel may, if given extra time, uncover, came last week when the Guardian reported that German secret service agents had testified in court that an Iranian spy warned the United States about the 9/11 attacks. According to the agents, the Iranian contacted the CIA in 2001 but the agency ignored him. “The testimony,” says the paper, “could heap more embarrassment on the US state department and secret services, which have denied allegations that they were forewarned of the attacks.

Other agencies likely to come in for sharp criticism are the FBI, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), and the INS, all of which failed to register warning signs such as that some of the hijackers carried fake passports, had made false statements on visa applications, and had infringed immigration law. Inadequate pre-screening procedures and airline staff untrained to handle attacks contributed to the security breach.

The Bush administration’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia’s rulers may also provide fuel for critics. The commission recently revealed, for example, that several of the hijackers had been flagged by the state department as potential terrorists. Many did not qualify for entry visas, but 19 out of an estimated 20 soon-to-be hijackers bypassed the visa screening process and made it into the United States anyway. The reason according to columnist Joel Mowbray, is that many of them were Saudis:

“And all Saudis were considered ‘clearly approvable,’ which is how the number two State Department official in Saudi Arabia described Saudi visa applicants in an e-mail in June, 2001. It was because of this mentality that the consular officer who approved the visas of 10 of the 9/11 hijackers said that she overlooked glaring red flags in the paperwork, according to government investigators.”

However unpopular with the government, an extended deadline is favored by family members of the victims of 9/11 as well as by many commentators. A Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial blames the White House for the need for the extension in the first place:

“Had the White House actively cooperated in helping the commission carry out its congressionally mandated duties, no extension would be necessary. But the White House made this bed, and it should now be required to sleep in it. The commission should get the extra two or three months most members believe it needs….

But the White House already has politicized the process by dragging its feet at every opportunity. This may be, as one commission member asserted, the most important investigation ‘in the history of the country.’ It certainly ranks high on the list, and it deserves the time necessary to do a comprehensive job.”

Sen. McCain recently said that “the Bush administration has been ‘stonewalling and slow-walking’ the commission for months,” and Sen. Lieberman — who admittedly has an interest in making the Bush administration look bad — has been even more critical:

“‘I fully support an extension to ensure that the commission’s work is not compromised by the Bush administration’s delaying tactics, secrecy and stonewalling. …Clearly the president is not interested in a complete and thorough investigation.'”


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