WASHINGTON — Henry A. Kissinger told President Bush on Friday that he would not serve as chairman of a new commission investigating last year's terrorist attacks because he did not want to liquidate his lucrative international consulting firm to take the position.
Bush's appointment of the former secretary of state, announced 16 days ago, was controversial from the start. Kissinger had come under increasing pressure to step aside -- even before all the members of the commission had been named -- because critics questioned whether his continued connections to his firm would pose a conflict.
Kissinger Associates Inc., based in New York, represents some of the world's leading multinational corporations, including many with direct interests in U.S. foreign policy.
Kissinger's abrupt decision followed by two days the departure of the commission's vice chairman, former Sen. George J. Mitchell.
The Maine Democrat said he could not afford to sever his ties to his law firm, as some had demanded, during what is likely to be a yearlong investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In addition to the questions about his financial interests, Kissinger, 79, encountered sharp criticism for the role he played as national security advisor and secretary of state during the Richard Nixon administration.
During his tenure, the White House expanded the war in Southeast Asia before pulling U.S. troops out, and the administration supported the 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the leftist government of Salvador Allende. For his role in ending the Vietnam War, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, even as critics of the war's conduct branded him a "war criminal."
Kissinger's letter informing Bush of his resignation referred only to the questions of conflict of interest.
In a written statement, Bush said he accepted the resignation with regret.
"His chairmanship would have provided the insights and analysis the government needs to understand the methods of our enemies and the nature of the threats we face," the president said.
The White House had maintained that Kissinger was not obliged to make public the extensive list of clients served by his company. Democratic leaders and others disagreed. The issue had appeared to be headed to court.
As the controversy grew, Kissinger said he would sever ties with any clients in the face of possible conflicts. But Kissinger said that he could not "conceive that there will be any."
On Friday, however, he called White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to say he was stepping aside, and dispatched a letter to Bush telling him he would not accept the appointment.
Bush's choice of Kissinger was announced with fanfare at the White House the day before Thanksgiving, with the former secretary of state at the president's side.
In his letter Friday, Kissinger said that to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, he had told White House lawyers that he would present to the administration "all relevant financial information," and would also make it available for independent review "consistent with submissions of other members of the joint commission."
"However, it is clear that, although specific potential conflicts can be resolved in this manner, the controversy would quickly move to the consulting firm I have built and own," he said. He indicated that while he was ready to make public his personal financial information, he did not want to do so for his company, and dissolving it could not be done quickly enough.
"To liquidate Kissinger Associates cannot be accomplished without significantly delaying the beginning of the joint commission's work. I have, therefore, concluded that I cannot accept the responsibility you proposed," he wrote to Bush.
He said that "there can be no more important undertaking" than investigating "the facts and circumstances surrounding the tragedy of Sept. 11."
He also said the work of the panel was so important "that it must begin without distraction and controversy so that it can be completed swiftly, thoroughly and credibly."
Democratic members of Congress had argued that Kissinger was required to divulge his clients because Congress had created the commission, and thus all panelists must comply with congressional financial disclosure requirements.
The White House sided with Kissinger, saying that as an executive-branch appointee, he was exempt.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded last week that all panelists were required to divulge the identities of clients who paid them more than $5,000 over the last two years.
On Thursday, Kissinger would not budge from his position, even as he sought to assure representatives of the Sept. 11 families that his far-flung business interests would not interfere with his role as head of the commission. He also has said that he has no Saudi clients and does not represent any Middle Eastern governments.