Skip to comments.2 on 9/11 Panel Are Questioned on Earlier Security Roles
Posted on 01/15/2004 2:08:10 PM PST by neverdem
WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 The executive director of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has become a witness in the inquiry and has been interviewed by his own staff about his involvement in shaping the Bush administration's early counterterrorism strategy, officials said on Wednesday.
In addition, one of the 10 commissioners on the panel, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, was also interviewed this week. The unusual dual roles of the director, Philip D. Zelikow, and the commissioner, Jamie S. Gorelick, have raised fresh questions about potential conflicts of interest in the commission, which has been dogged by concerns about its independence since it was created in 2002.
In the transition before President Bush's inauguration in January 2001, Mr. Zelikow worked on Mr. Bush's team to help formulate national security policy. Because he participated in those discussions, investigators interviewed him to learn how much information the incoming administration had about the possibility of a major attack and what steps it took to guard against that threat.
The transition period between the Clinton and Bush administrations remains a sensitive issue, particularly in an election year. Many conservatives and supporters of Mr. Bush have argued that President Bill Clinton did not do enough to deal with the threat from Al Qaeda. Some Democrats and former Clinton administration officials have countered that the Bush administration did not take terrorism seriously enough, either, before 9/11.
Mr. Zelikow, a staff member of the National Security Council in the first Bush administration and a close associate of Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, has been a target of criticism because of concerns that his role as executive director of the Sept. 11 commission could pose a potential conflict. But it had not previously been disclosed that the panel interviewed him about the early planning of the Bush administration.
"He does have information that could be of interest to the commission's report," a spokesman for the commission, Al Felzenberg, said. "He wanted to be interviewed. He said, `If I have anything that can be germane, ask me, and I'll tell you what I saw and what I heard and what I recommended.' "
Mr. Zelikow declined to be interviewed about the issue because of commission policy, Mr. Felzenberg said. Commission officials said they did not believe that his role as a witness would impede the investigation because he had removed himself from decisions or oversight involving his work on the transition team. But the general counsel is continuing to examine the terms of his recusal to determine whether it goes far enough to avoid any possible conflicts, officials said.
"This is not a closed issue," said a commission official.
In addition, Ms. Gorelick, one of the 10 commissioners to whom Mr. Zelikow reports, said she had been interviewed this week about her involvement in terrorism policy. She was the top deputy in the mid-90's to Attorney General Janet Reno. Like Mr. Zelikow, she has also recused herself from dealings involving decisions in which she was involved.
Officials said Ms. Gorelick and two other commission members had also withdrawn from involvement in aviation issues because their law firms had airlines as clients. A handful of other staff members besides Mr. Zelikow have recused themselves from specific areas, as well, because of past positions.
Mr. Zelikow and Ms. Gorelick are the sole commission officials known to have been interviewed. They are also the only two commission officials with wide access to highly classified White House documents.
Mr. Zelikow's arrangement has caused particular concern among some commission officials because it means that the man responsible for the day-to-day operations of the panel will be removed from what could be an important part of its inquiry.
Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband died in the World Trade Center and who has helped lead a group of survivors pushing for more answers about the attacks, said the situation called into question the independence of the commission.
"He has a huge conflict of interest," Ms. Breitweiser said when told that Mr. Zelikow had been interviewed. "This is what we've been concerned about from Day 1."
Her concern, Ms. Breitweiser said, is that the commission report "is going to be a whitewash."
"What we want to know is why they didn't investigate Osama bin Laden sooner," she added.
Her group plans to meet commission officials on Thursday, and family members are likely to raise their concerns about possible conflicts, she said.
Ms. Gorelick said potential conflicts and recusals were the price that the commission had to pay for having workers with extensive experience in national security.
"You want to have people who are knowledgeable," she said. "So you make certain accommodations to have that, and the accommodations we've made don't undermine the investigation in any way."
Since its inception, the commission has been a focus of questions about whether possible conflicts could taint its findings. The White House's first choice for chairman, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, stepped down rather than release a list of business clients at his consulting firm.
Some family members had protested that Mr. Kissinger's ties to multinational corporations, foreign governments and the Republican establishment in Washington would make it difficult for him to lead an objective investigation.
The first choice of Congressional Democrats for vice chairman, George J. Mitchell, the former Senate leader, also stepped down after questions about possible conflicts over his corporate clients.