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Kissinger to Lead 9/11 Inquiry

He is given a mandate to 'uncover every detail.' George Mitchell is named vice chairman.

November 28, 2002|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday named Henry A. Kissinger the chairman of an independent commission that will investigate last year's terrorist attacks, giving one of America's most famed diplomats a broad mandate to probe the deadliest assault on American soil.

"His investigation should carefully examine all the evidence and follow all the facts, wherever they may lead," Bush said in making the announcement. "We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of Sept. 11."

Congressional Democrats named former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, to be the vice chairman of the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Kissinger, 79, is a controversial figure rooted in the nation's foreign-policy establishment for more than three decades. A Nobel laureate, he brings to the panel extensive experience in national security issues as well as personal distance from the events the panel will investigate.

He pledged that the commission would not be "restricted by any foreign-policy considerations."

This was a reference, only slightly veiled, to the risk that the investigation could turn up information embarrassing to the administration and its allies. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been buffeted by questions about possible financial links between its government officials and the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Kissinger has long been a lightning rod for critics of U.S. foreign policy, reaching back to his service as national security advisor and secretary of State during the Nixon and Ford administrations. His background caused some to question whether the commission's work would remain independent of the administration and whether its findings would be credible.

Kissinger was President Nixon's key foreign-policy aide during the secret bombing of Cambodia and the U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, Chile's leftist president.

Referring to questions about Kissinger's role in both events, Steven Aftergood, who oversees a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said: "He has no shortage of secrets of his own, and therefore seems like an unlikely candidate to be uncovering the secrets of this investigation."

Aftergood questioned whether Kissinger would be willing to support issuing subpoenas for members of the president's staff to obtain information that they did not want to reveal. This is relevant because one of the key questions about the period leading up to the attacks is what warning, if any, Bush had received about a threat.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leading sponsor of the legislation creating the commission, said he expected that the panel would question the president.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush does not envision testifying.

Kissinger was noncommittal on that issue, saying, "One doesn't start with the president of the United States, and so I don't want to make a judgment until we have all the facts, until we have other commissioners."

Anthony Lake, who served as President Clinton's national security advisor and who worked on Kissinger's staff before parting company with him over the 1970 invasion of Cambodia, praised the selection.

"He will do a serious job," Lake said. "He has great experience. He has been a consumer of intelligence but never a part of the intelligence community, and he hasn't been a participant in recent administrations, so he may have a degree of separation that may be useful."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another key supporter of the panel, said Kissinger's "depth of experience and broad knowledge of both intelligence and government will undoubtedly help to achieve the commission's objectives."

Kissinger's selection generated some surprise in Washington, partly because he has not had a prominent government post since President Ford left office in 1977 and partly because he has not been closely linked to Bush.

But Robert F. Ellsworth, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, noted that Kissinger was close to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose office as Ford's White House chief of staff was a few paces down from Kissinger's suite.

Ellsworth said Kissinger shares Rumsfeld's views on the need to overhaul the nation's intelligence operations -- likely to be a central focus of the inquiry.

Speaking to reporters outside the White House, Kissinger said the commission's recommendations would "contribute to the safety of America, to the future of America and to the avoidance of any future tragedies."

Bush, he said, "has said publicly, and he has told me privately, that he has every intention to carry out the recommendations of the commission."

Although best-known since he left government for his extensive writings on foreign affairs, Kissinger also has been a consultant to businesses operating overseas.

A White House spokesman said it was unclear whether he would be required to disclose personal financial information that senior government appointees make public.

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