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Declassify the 9/11 Report

May 21, 2003

The appearance of a government cover-up concerning what happened Sept. 11, 2001, would not increase public confidence in officials' ability to fix what went wrong. Even so, the Bush administration continues to block the release of last year's House-Senate 9/11 panel report. It raises the question: What's to hide?

When the report was completed in December, the investigators voted to quickly release as much material as possible. An intelligence review committee, led by the CIA, was supposed to speedily vet the material to make sure no national security secrets were disclosed or valuable sources compromised. The review committee came back with an extensive set of redactions in February, according to people who saw the report and described it as "gutted."

Far from trying to disseminate information, reviewers wanted to reclassify information already in the public domain, such as portions of the highly embarrassing July 10, 2001, "Phoenix memo" by FBI Agent Kenneth Williams warning of Osama bin Laden followers attending U.S. flight schools. The logic is that because the memo was never officially declassified, it shouldn't be included in the 9/11 report. Lawmakers have appealed to the reviewers for a more complete version of the report.

The reviewers' Kafkaesque thinking leaves the impression that the intelligence agencies are trying to evade public and congressional scrutiny.

Most important, the agencies are making it harder for the new government 9/11 commission, led by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, to carry out its work.

The House-Senate investigation was confined to the work of intelligence agencies; by contrast, Kean's commission has a broad congressional mandate to investigate any part of the government. Its work was initially slowed by wrangling with the administration over the commission's own access to the classified House-Senate report.

Such infighting sends a "chilling signal" to government agencies about cooperating with the new 9/11 commission, according to former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, a Democrat who served on the House-Senate panel and is a member of the new commission. As it stands, if members of the commission want to see the House-Senate report, they have to travel to the out-of-the-way Ford House Office Building, where it's kept under lock.

Roemer says the report should be declassified so Congress and the White House can debate and implement its recommendations. It would take only a phone call from President Bush to CIA Director George J. Tenet to end the nonsense.

When the 9/11 commission holds public hearings Thursday and Friday, lawmakers like Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a presidential hopeful who was a member of the original investigation, will have another chance to pressure the administration to stop stonewalling declassification. If they are successful, commission members will be able to spend more time doing their job than trudging over to the Ford building.

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